Say It Like a Tar Heel - Carolina Country

Say It Like a Tar Heel

A beginner’s guide to NC place name pronunciation

By Lori Grossman

Say It Like a Tar Heel

I live in Texas, but you’ll notice that my bio says I carry memories of North Carolina in my heart. Those memories involve a childhood visit with my “Uncle” Walter, who had a fascination for North Carolina place names.

Actually, Walter was my dad’s cousin, but he asked my brother and me to call him Uncle Walter because it was more “homey.” I took to him right away because he was so much like my dad. Both of them were curious about the world around them.

“I was hooked. Already awestruck by the tall pine trees and beautiful scenery, now I wanted to learn how to talk like a native North Carolinian.”

My first lesson in Tar Heel pronunciations came on a drive from Pinehurst (where Walter and his wife, Thelma, lived) to the Uwharrie National Forest. He slowed the car to a crawl as we neared the entrance and asked me to read the name on the sign.

“You-Harry?” I guessed.

“No, but you’re close,” Uncle Walter said. “You say it you-WHAR-ee.”

I was hooked. Already awestruck by the tall pine trees and beautiful scenery, now my 8-year-old self wanted to learn how to talk like a native North Carolinian. I wanted to discover other mysterious place names and maybe find out why they were pronounced that way.

Over the next two weeks, Uncle Walter and I spent several hours poring over a North Carolina state map and discussing the correct/local way to say a city or place name. I’d heard of Raleigh (Raw-Lee) before, probably while watching an Andy Griffith Show rerun. But when Uncle Walter pointed to a city south of Raleigh that had two names, I was unsure.

“How would you say it?” he asked.

Whenever confronted with an unfamiliar word, I tried to sound it out. So, timidly, I said, “FEW-Kway vuh-REE-nuh?”

“Very good,” he said, smiling at me. When I asked why one city had two names, he said it used to be two cities and they’d become one. I thought it (Fuquay Varina) sounded like a lady’s name, with her last name first.

So far, we’d been hopscotching around the map, looking for unusual place names. Now, Uncle Walter suggested a new strategy. My family’s visit wouldn’t last long enough for us to see all the places he wanted to show us, so why not plan a make-believe trip?

“Sounds like fun!” I agreed. “Where will we go first?”

Checking the map, we chose a route west, which happened to contain some tricky place names. When we got to Asheville, he told me that the county name didn’t sound like it looked. Spelled Buncombe, it was pronounced BUNK-um. Then there was Cullowhee — home of Western Carolina University. The locals called it CULL-uh-whee.

At the far western border with Tennessee was the Appalachian Mountains. The pronounciation may seem tricky, but in North Carolina its decidedly ap-a-LATCH-UN.

“That’s enough for today,” he said, folding the map. “Next time, we’ll go east to the Outer Banks.”

A few days later, Uncle Walter and I “hit the road.” When I saw the long, thin barrier island, it reminded me of a similar place — Padre Island — just off of the Texas coast. I knew that the Outer Banks, like our Padre Island, had weathered many hurricanes. Uncle Walter told me that it was a special place, with lots of interesting things to see. Like the Bodie Island Lighthouse.

“If you wanted to sound like a local, you’d pronounce it BODY,” he told me. “And I’ll bet you’ve heard of Cape Hatteras before, haven’t you? Well, the residents would know you were a tourist if you didn’t call it HAT-rihs.”

It was a good place to end our make-believe travels. A few days later, my family left for Texas. But not before I showed dear Uncle Walter the name of my hometown and asked him how he would say it.

“San AN-tonio?”

“No, but you’re close,” I said. “It’s all one word. Sanantonio.”

Tell us how you 'say it like a Tar Heel'!

Our state is full of quirky place names and pronunciations. What’s your favorite? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

About the Author

Freelance writer Lori Grossman currently lives in Texas, but carries memories of North Carolina in her heart.

Comments (15)

  • There's no such place as Cullowhee County in North Carolina. Cullowhee and Western Carolina University are located in Jackson County.. might need to check your geography. And an alphabetical list of NC counties!!

    Cindy Hedrick Day |
    April 28, 2021 |
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    • Yep, I noticed that too being I'm originally from Jackson County.

      Jack Edward Parris |
      April 30, 2021 |
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      • I figured you would....It ain't that hard...lol..wonder where she got her info..obviously not from here.

        Cindy Day |
        May 02, 2021 |
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    • Thank you for finding this Cindy—we made the update!

      Carolina Country |
      April 30, 2021 |
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      • Thanks....

        Cindy Day |
        May 02, 2021 |
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  • The best is Mebane in Alamance County. It is pronounced meh-ben. That one got me when I first moved here. Colfax in Guilford County pronounced call-fax by locals.

    Mark Schumacher |
    April 29, 2021 |
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  • I live in Shallotte, pronounced, well, Shall otte. Seems easy to me, but I hear from others what sounds like a small onion like veggie, and a friend in SC who called and asked where exactly I lived "because I knew that even you couldn't misspell Charlotte that bad". I guess I don't help any by living on Gallinule Dr. (It's a small duck like water bird)

    Allan L Richards |
    April 30, 2021 |
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    • Now that's funny! We have a community here called Baton (BAY-ton)...news anchors, even the old timers, call it Bah-ton...like that thing majorettes twirl...sometimes I wonder if it's on purpose...but we cringe when we here it. I'm not from there but the other end of the county, but had kids from that community when i was a middle school counselor.

      Cindy Day |
      May 02, 2021 |
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  • Must agree with Mark Shumacher, above. A brand-new news anchor -- obviously not from around here -- on one of our local television stations (at Christmas, since the new kids get the most undesirable schedules) botched "Lenoir" by pronouncing it "Lennar". Now I knew what she was talking about since references in the rest of the story identified the location. But when I heard that my brain said, "Gee, someone please tell her about "Mebane"!!!! (By the way, during the next newscast, she pronounced Lenoir properly. No doubt someone corrected her.)

    I also must agree with Allan Richards regarding Shallotte. I understand that some folks that have moved there have relatives and friends who insist that they have moved to "Charlotte"! Ha! Hardly -- except for the traffic on that main road. That rivals Charlotte.

    Carolyn Phillips |
    May 01, 2021 |
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    • I live in Lenoir. Even the automatic "appointment reminder" calls it LEN-war - was in the French pronunciation...and I'll say that loosely... It's the same with Beaufort, NC. BO-fort for NC - BU-fort for SC. and spelled the same. That's how locals know where you're from...Same for Topsail...and a few others. Appalachian mispronunciation drives me crazy...APP-a-lah-chun...Not App-a LAY-shun..Got into a verbal knock down @ the Smithsonian some years back on an 8th grade field trip over that one. Of course we pronounce it wrong, according to them...not...Love our state and its quirky names. How about Aho? ask those not from here about that one.

      Cindy Day |
      May 02, 2021 |
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  • I like Bahama. Not pronounced like the islands, but ba-HAY-ma. But my favorite is the informal "silent" letters that make our pronunciation so Carolinian. Starting with MEB-n (Mebane) and DURM (Durham), moving on to ZEB-l'n (Zebulon) and HEN-e-son (Henderson) and all the way down to TOP-s'l (Topsail).

    Mike Butler |
    May 04, 2021 |
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    • Sometimes ville get swallowed. So Fayetteville becomes Fedvul and Cherryville becomes cheravul. People don't shorten long names in Virginia (Charlottesville or Martinsville) and other states. Of course the former biggest city in the state is also hyphenated (Winston-Salem).

      Carl Mills |
      May 04, 2021 |
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  • I also came to comment on Cullowhee "County"... As stated, it is Jackson County.

    Joe Walker |
    May 04, 2021 |
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  • You just started on the Outer Banks. Some of the pronunctiations are old English, others are nautical. You need to learn from Sir Walter. One of the most lonesome counties is "Oid" which is English for Hyde. We recently got a pastor imported from the inner banks of ber-TEE where I spent my preschool years. The river that drains most of Bertie County is not Cash-ie, but instead is ca-SHY.

    Carl Mills |
    May 04, 2021 |
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  • How did we get different spellings for the same name. Some say that it goes back to the Civil War divide where they changed Stephens to Stevens in the north and Breckinridge became Breckenridge. I also have property in the southern Alleghany county, not in Allegheny County (Pittsburgh) or Allegany where some Yorkies come from.We have interesting German heritage towns where German tarheels settled here before there was a country named Germany. So we have Pofftown rather than Pfafftown.

    Carl Mills |
    May 04, 2021 |
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