The Correct Way To Pronounce McDowell

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census form showing mcdowell spelled phonetically as mcdole

(A word of thanks to “GenealogyMum” who passed on the census document to me that motivated this post)

If you’re from Northern Ireland, you probably already know how the surname “McDowell” is pronounced among Northern Irish people where the name is not uncommon. However, if you’re Canadian or American, it’s a possibility you are pronouncing it incorrectly!

The Cringe Of My Father

As mentioned elsewhere, my brother Andrew was given a middle name (one of two) of “McDowell.” In Canada, I’d see my father cringe when he heard how some people pronounced it. After awhile, I think he gave up on trying to correct them including our mom, who would insist on pronouncing this name as if it were “Mc” followed by the sound of what we call a wooden dowel.

It was often odd in Canada, where pronunciation of some “foreign” names was energetically and enthusiastically learned in order to not to offend people, but not the same effort for some other names. Not just “foreign” names, but we had to get the French surnames of people from Quebec with a correct pronunciation. If you called “Guy Lafleur” with a “Hey, Guy!” sound instead of a more correct “Gee” (not Jee) sound, you’d probably hear about it.

So it would irk my father a bit to hear Northern Irish and Scottish names incorrectly pronounced and when corrected, most would just ignore it. An example would be the horrible mispronunciation of “Strachan Ave” in Toronto – somehow Canadians would turn that name into “Strawn Ave.” Oh how I recall hearing my father’s reactions while driving in the car in Toronto, and listening to the traffic reporters talk about how traffic was moving slowly across the Gardiner Expressway through “Strawn Ave.” 🙂

And that takes us to the main point of this – the correct way to pronounce “McDowell” and phonetic spelling evidence for it.

Census Takers And Their Spelling Mistakes

When going through older documents and census, you have to be very aware that a person’s surname might be spelled a variety of ways. In my Great-Great-Great Grandfather’s “Last Will & Testimony,” I observed that in there, the writer was sure to note the two common variations in the spelling of his name including “Greig or Grig.”

When census takers came around to your door, generally they would ask you questions, and record your answers. Correct spelling was not often a priority, it seems – and this is something to keep in mind when you are searching for your family records. You might find someone born as “Catharine” but later, referred to as “Katharine” – doing exact match searches on or the other might throw off your research.

This seems to be the case for the census taker that arrived at the door in Canton, Ohio at 1325 Jackson Street, where our John McDowell had been residing. Whoever provided the census taker with John’s name obviously pronounced it the way it would be pronounced “back home” in Ireland – and the census taker wrote it out exactly as he heard it: McDole.

Another Pronunciation?

I was discussing this with my brother Andrew yesterday evening – and he reminded me that with this particular name, sometimes even the ‘c’ is left off in the pronunciation. When Northern Irishman Harold Paisley (Yes, that Paisley, the brother to “Big Ian”) married my brother and his wife, Mr. Paisley pronounced Andrew’s full name as “Andrew Gordon M’Dole Scott.”

So there you have it. If you’re Canadian or American, you can choose to leave out the c if you want, but remember it’s not a piece of wood after the M(c)!

Interesting Name Origin

I’m always interested in the origins of names (you’d laugh at what my father claimed about ours – “Scott,” when I was a young boy, but that’s for another story) and recently came across what some claim are the origins for “McDowell.”

Many names that begin with “Mc” are from the same origin as those with “Mac,” the latter being more commonly the Scottish version of the name while the former, the Irish version. This is the case with our “McDowell” – it is, in Scotland, “MacDowell.” Originally, it apparently came from the Gaelic Mac Dubhghaill, meaning “son of Dubhghall” and is related to MacDougall or McDougall.

Sources suggest that “Dubhghall” meant “Dark Stranger” that the Gaels used to distinguish between “darker-haired Danes from fair-haired Norwegians.”


Wikipedia – Surname McDowell

Ancestry – Surname McDowell

US Census – 1910 (With Thanks To “GenealogyMum”) JPG Image – 351 KB

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