J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

How Did People Pronounce “Faneuil Hall”?

Peter Faneuil.[1700-1743]. Digital ID: 1233858. New York Public LibraryIn 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.)
I didn’t find anyone spelling “Faneuil Hall” as “Funnel Hall” except in post-Revolutionary newspaper articles that were obvious political parodies. That’s not to say people didn’t pronounce the name like “funnel,” especially when they referred to the Faneuil brothers decades before the Revolutionary War. But it makes it less likely.

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.


Anonymous said...

What a delightful blog. It reminds me of the phonetic spelling of Henry David Thoreau's name, which shows that it was pronounced THOR-oh, not the way I've heard it so often mispronounced, ThorROW. -- Joe Bauman

Anonymous said...

Ha, I love the "Faneuil" debate. Nice point about the Novelists being from different regions with perhaps limited experience speaking with Bostonians. I think people from other areas have (and apparently had) a difficult time capturing on paper the way native Bostonians really speak. They seem to hear something different than what we are saying. :)

Waldo4me said...

Being a loyal reader from Wyoming, I've never heard anyone pronounce Faneuil and I gather from your post that there are still some variations. Nevertheless, could someone provide a phonetic spelling of the most common pronunciation? Inquiring minds want to know!



Kyle said...

Very interesting! I used to live just off Faneuil St. in Brighton and the automated bus announcement always called it "Faneel Street." That was a new one on me!

J. L. Bell said...

Keith, the current pronunciations are “FAN-el” rhyming with “flannel,” and something between “FAN-yull” or “FAN-yule” near-rhyming with “spaniel.”

I think those are the descendants of the “Fannel” and “Fanuel” pronunciations documented in the late 1700s and early 1800s.

Kyle, that bus announcement must have been recorded elsewhere! (But not France, where they no doubt pronounce “Faneuil” the original way.)

G. Lovely said...


Yet another way: I pronounce it FAN-you-ul. Lived here all my life, and don't think I'm alone.

The fact is, despite generations of mass communication, often it's still possible to distinguish the differences between old-time locals from Beacon Hill, Dorchester, Revere, Hyde Park, Quincy, and Medford, all within ten miles of Fanuiel Hall!


J. L. Bell said...

I think your "FAN-you-ul" and my "FAN-yule" sound a lot alike.