In 1740, the New Rochelle-born merchant Peter Faneuil (shown at left courtesy of the New York Public Library) offered Boston money to erect a grand new building with space for town meetings and shops. By a very close vote (367–360), the town accepted his gift. Faneuil died six months after the building went up.
In his 1825 novel Lionel Lincoln, James Fenimore Cooper declared that Bostonians pronounced the name of that building “Funnel Hall.” Other American novelists repeated that phrase: Seba Smith in The Life and Writings of Major Jack Downing of Downingville (1833); Thomas Chandler Haliburton in The Attaché: or, Sam Slick in England (1843); Eliza Leslie in The Young Revolutionists (1845); and so on.
Cooper was from upstate New York, Smith from Maine, Haliburton from Nova Scotia, and Leslie from Pennsylvania. None of them wrote from great personal experience with old Bostonians. Some late-1800s authors from Massachusetts attributed the “Funnel Hall” pronunciation to their grandfathers, but by then the earlier books might have affected how they understood the past.
One clue to how people of the Revolutionary period pronounced the name “Faneuil” is how they spelled it, In particular, people who had less formal education or hadn’t seen the name on paper might have written it phonetically. Eighteenth-century folks weren’t shy about respelling words to their liking.
In looking at period sources, I found most people used the spelling “Faneuil,” but “Fanuel” was also common. I’ve seen that variant in a 1734 Massachusetts General Court resolution, the record of Boston town meetings, reports to Customs officials, an itinerary of the Rev. Ezra Stiles, the orderly book of Gen. William Howe, and letters by Dr. Thomas Young, Henry Pelham, John Adams, Joseph Barrell, Belcher Noyes, and others. In the early 1800s “Fanuel Hall” was printed in guidebooks, town directories, and advertisements, suggesting that it was widely accepted.
I also found some rarer variants:
- Thomas Chute, record of writs delivered as an Essex County deputy sheriff, 1733-37: “Funel” as the surname of Peter Faneuil and his brother Andrew.
- John Rowe, diary, 1768: ”Fanewil Hall” and “Fanewill Hall.”
- Concord town meeting, 1768: “Fannel Hall.”
- Maj. Francis Hutcheson, 1775: “Fannel Hall.”
- John Adams, autobiography, written 1802-07: “Phanuel Hall.” (Was he trying to be cute?)
- scratched on Peter Faneuil’s tomb at an unknown date: “P. Funel.” (More about this variant tomorrow.)
The much more common “Faneuil,” “Fanuel,” “Fannel,” and the like suggest to me that most Bostonians pronounced the first vowel in “Faneuil” as an A, and then disagreed about the rest of the word. The same way we do today.