Edmond Halley

Edmond HalleyOne of the most commonly mispronounced words in astronomy is the surname of the English astronomer, mathematician and physicist Edmond Halley (1656-1742).

During the time he lived names were often written as they were heard. For example, the early registers of Halifax Parish Church in the West Riding of Yorkshire contain a dozen or more different spellings of the now-standardised name Greenwood. These reflect the way the name was pronounced at the time and also the way that the parish officials heard, and subsequently recorded, that pronunciation.

Nowadays, of course, the spelling of this and other names have been standardised. However, the problem hasn’t really gone away. For example, ask anyone who lives in Shrewsbury, Leominster or Bicester how often the names of their towns come across verbally and you’ll perhaps realise this!

Anyway, to get back to the issue in hand . . . the surname Halley, when applied to the astronomer, is a victim of two particularly common mispronunciations. The first of these, and perhaps the most common, is ‘Haley’, where the first syllable of the name rhymes with ‘hail’. This is an obvious allusion to the rock and roll singer Bill Haley and his backing group The Comets. Clearly this pronunciation is wrong, being a reflection of the common pronunciation of Halley and Halley’s Comet in America during the 1950s and 1960s together with the perhaps-obvious (albeit erroneous) association with the astronomer from where the band appear to have derived their name.

The second common mistake occurs when the first syllable of the name is pronounced in the same way as that in the word ‘Halloween’. Logically, and taking into account the basic spelling of the name, this would appear to be the case. However, when we look at contemporary written versions of Edmond Halley’s surname, the true pronunciation is clearly revealed to us.

Prior to the early 19th century, names were often written down and recorded the way they sounded. In other words, and importantly in this context, the way they were pronounced by the people themselves. In the case of Edmond Halley, perhaps the most famous example of contemporary sources are the diaries of Samuel Pepys (1633-1703). One entry, in which Pepys is praising Halley’s work and achievements in navigation, reads:

“Mr Hawley – May he not be said to have the most, if not to be the first Englishman (and possibly any other) that had so much, or (it might be said) any competent degree (meeting in them) of the science and practice (both) of navigation. And the inferences to be raised therefrom.

This is clear evidence, from a reliable contemporary source, of the true pronunciation of the surname of Edmond Halley. From this diary entry, and other phonetic variations of the period, it is evident that the name was pronounced ‘Hawley’, with the ‘Hall’ part of the surname rhyming with ‘ball’. This is a reflection of the pronunciation that Halley himself preferred and which, out of respect to him, the one that we should certainly use today.

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