Tuesday, April 13, 2010


I love to tell the story about Versailles. It perfectly sums up some of the more esoteric attitudes towards language. It also provides an opportunity to laugh at yourself, which is generally a good and therapeutic thing. I always included it in English lessons.

In addition to being a rather famous palace in France, Versailles is also a small town in Missouri. It's almost smack in the middle of the state and has one abiding claim to fame. Well, apparently, two - as I just found out that Bud Walton, one of the founders of Wal-Mart is a native son. The other one is the fact that Versailles is not pronounced like its more famous French namesake but, rather, as it is spelled. Ver Sales.

This is not uncommon is the U.S.A. Many foreign words (particularly place names) have English pronunciations. There must be a fantastic dissertation somewhere which explains this phenomenon. I am convinced that it has nothing to do with the ignorance and parochialism of the natives. It most probably has its roots in the well-documented, historical penchant for “boosting” in rural America.

Boosting was, and may still be, a common practice dating from the settlement of the west. Small towns of no consequence spring up - convinced that if only the railroad drops tracks in its direction it will be the next Chicago. In an effort to attract custom they borrow a more famous and influential name, like Versailles.

Examples abound in Missouri. We have Cap au Gris, Roubidoux, La Plata, Marquand, Terre Haute, River aux Vases, Bois D'Arc, Guiteau, Portage de Sioux, Creve Coeur, De Lisle, Duquesne, Gravois Mills, Weableau, Chouteau Springs, Bevier, Fontainbleau, Rocheport, Mirabile, De Soto, Montreal, Terre du Lac, Cape Girardeau, Lyon, Moselle, Belgique, Femme Osage, Vichy, Des Arc and Cabanage de Renaudiere – not to mention a lake, Pomme de Terre, which in what Mark Twain called “the ordinary Pike County dialect” is definitely called Pom d tar. Some of the others retain their original pronunciation. How many? I'm not sure. I know Des Arc pronounces all the consonants and Cap au Griz probably sounds the last “Z”. Not surprising to know that Missouri was part of the Louisiana Purchase.

Germany is also well represented with Kaiser, Rhineland, Stakenburg, Frankenstein, Koenig, Dresden, Westphalia, Ghermanville, Wittenburg, Kiel, Kohl and Hamburg.

Countries abound: The Phillipines, Cuba, Mexico, Sweden, Netherlands, China, Scotland and Egypt are all represented.

I personally like Gad's Hill from Henry IV.

Classics? How about Syracuse, Cairo, Cleopatra, Halcyon, Nineveh, Boaz, Troy and Avalon?

England? Eton, Worcester, Newmarket, Cambridge, Lancaster, Beaufort, Winchester and Cornwall.

We've even got Napoleon (Missouri) meeting his Waterloo (Missouri) with Wellington, Missouri in attendance.

Not to be outdone, we've got Tightwad out in Henry County, Lickskillet in Putnam and (my favourites) Jolly and Jollification in Newton County. Seldom Seen is in Pemiscot County but should be in Worth County which has only 2270 inhabitants – no wonder Worth is lacking in outstanding names!

Finally we get to the title: Odessa which is really in Ukraine (also in Texas). The Missouri Odessa is in Lafayette County and has a population of 4818 souls. It was an unremarkable place when last I visited, and that was some 40 years ago. I suspect it's fairly unremarkable still.

I was listening to WHB in Kansas City, as you do, and they had a crazy idea to walk from Higginsville (also Lafayette County) to Kansas City. About 50 miles. Sadly, I can't even remember why? Now-a-days it would be some kind of charity fund-raiser. Sorry, I can't remember. When you're only 17-18 you do a lot of dumb things. I did.

Stupidly, I convinced some others to go with me. After work at 70 Hi Drive In off we went. It was late. I think the walk started at midnight. Somehow I persuaded my Old Man to drive us to Higginsville at midnight. He dropped us off. We started off. We had no real idea how far 50 miles is. We soon learned.

Some fool was running down Interstate 70. I'm not sure how he didn't get killed. Perhaps he did and I never heard about it.

Discretion being the better part of valour, we decided to walk down Old 40 Hi-Way instead of the Interstate. Seemed safer and more scenic. Bit hillier, but safer.

We lasted about 3 or 4 hours. Not only did we get very tired but we also got very sleepy. It was dry but quite cold. We staggered into the first populated place (Odessa, Missouri) in the wee hours. I was desperately hoping to find somewhere open, like a gas station or all-night diner – anywhere with a phone. I was prepared to be mightily abused by the OM for being such a myrmidon (I'm convinced this was the word he used – though he always pronounced it as rom a dom) – usually prefaced with Goddamn!

We came over the last hill. The lights of a gas station loomed invitingly. We staggered towards it to find the OM sitting in the car at the side of the road.

He said something like, “I figured you guys would get about this far.”

We had our moments through the years, but I don't think I ever loved him more than I did outside a gas station in Odessa, Missouri in the early hours.

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