Pronounced how?

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This week’s Friday funny, brought to you as ever by author and journalist Eugene Byrne, takes a look at a small village in Wales that boasts one of the longest names in the world. But where does the name originate and was it merely a publicity stunt?

The joke

An English couple are driving through Wales on holiday. In Anglesey they arrive at Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, the town that is famous throughout the world for its long and complicated name.

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Well, they have to stop here, just to be able to say they’ve visited, and so they park at a fast food restaurant and go in for a cup of coffee.

As they’re finishing off their coffee, John says to the waitress, “Excuse me, Miss, but we’re very curious as to how to pronounce the name of this place properly. Could you please say it to us – very slowly.”

“Certainly sir,” says the waitress. “Burrr-gerrrr Kiinnngggg!”

The story

OK, fair enough, the only historic thing about that joke is that it’s over ten years old. It was probably Wales’s Favourite Joke of the Year in about 1997. It thus supplanted much older gags about railway tickets to Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch being too wide to fit through the train door.

But it’s trains that are the point. The village was originally known as Llanfairpwllgwyngyll, meaning St Mary’s Church In The Hollow Of The White Hazels, and the locals generally call it Llanfairpwll or Llanfair P.G.

The long name comes from the 1860s. One of the effects of the newfangled railways was that they were opening up places all over the country, especially coastal towns, to visitors. The Great British Seaside mostly owes its existence to trains, and in the 1860s it was only natural that the town would wish to try and attract visitors by marketing itself as a resort on the new line between Chester and Holyhead.

The long name was a publicity stunt to make the place stand out, and to this day visitors have their photo taken standing next to the station sign.

We can’t be certain who coined the name; it may have been a cobbler who lived nearby or, as poet and Welsh scholar Sir John Morris Jones claimed, a local tailor. Sadly, the once-popular notion that the eccentric John Evans (1827?-1895), who also lived locally, came up with the name, looks implausible.

(Evans, also known as Y Bardd Cocos (“the cockles bard”) would be a strong contender for the title of the Welsh McGonagall. One wag translated his verse about the monumental lion statues at either end of the Britannia Bridge as: “Four fat lions/Without any hair/Two over here/And two over there”.)

Whoever coined the name, which means “St Mary’s Church in the hollow of the white hazel near the rapid whirlpool and the church of Saint Tysilio of the red cave”, came up with a highly effective marketing tool. It’s not the longest place name in the world, but the town website made the Guinness Book of Records for the longest domain name in the world – www.llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch.co.uk

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There have been imitations. In 2004, for instance, the village of Llanfynydd in Carmarthenshire adopted a new and very long name as part of its campaign against a proposed wind farm. The name translated as “a quiet beautiful village and historic place with rare red kites threatened by the miserable blades”.