Scones, battleships, and why the London underground’s called the tube

Last Sunday, I opened the paper to find almost a full page devoted to a burning question: How do Britons pronounce the word scone?

I’d been under the impression that everybody who isn’t me pronounced it—as the article explained it—so it rhymes with gone. I’m not sure how useful that is, since for all I know the pronunciation of gone shifts from region to country to class to ethnic group. I pronounce it gawn, although I don’t drag out the W. The pronunciation they’re relying on is, I think, something closer to gohn. Or is that gahn?

English is such a mess.

Still, gone is a good enough place to start. Let’s leave it there for a minute or three.

Irrelevant photo: A bunch of junk I picked up in a few minutes on the beach, mostly plastic rope from fishing nets and a few other bits of plastic junk. Plus a shotgun shell. The village’s weekly beach clean continues and the organizers have set up a board encouraging people to do their own two-minute beach cleans. Plastic bags are neatly tucked into a slot in the board so you can grab one to fill. And yes, I’m aware of the irony in that, as I’m sure they are.

I assumed that rhyming scone (more or less) with gone was the English way of saying it. Or possibly the British way. That gets complicated too–sorting out what’s British from what’s English. I couldn’t remember for sure how they say it in Scotland, never mind Wales and so forth. I do know that the further north you travel in Britain, the longer the O gets (it has something to do with the weather), so scoooon would’ve been a reasonable, guess. I’d add more O’s, but any more than that and I’d fall into the North Sea.

As it turns out, scoooon would’ve not only been a reasonable guess but a wrong one. They save scoooon for the village of Scone, and also for the Stone of Scone, (pronounced, more or less, stown of scooooon, not stooooon of scooooon). The Stone–pay attention, because this is important–is (a) not shaped like a scone; (b) not edible, what with it being a stone and all; and (c) a source of conflict between the English and the Scots. It’s also called the Stone of Destiny. You can read a bit about it here. It’s a great, if slightly batty, story, but not one I want to get into here because, hey, we’ve got important stuff to talk about. Like how to pronounce scone.

I rhyme it with cone.

As it turns out, I’ve been wrong, not about how to pronounce it but about what I’ve been hearing. People from Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the north of England rhyme it (more or less) with gone. The newspaper article says that people from southern Ireland (um, I believe that’s called the Republic of Ireland these days, folks) and the English Midlands join me in rhyming it with cone. Wales divides by region. Everyone else does whatever they want, although the gone pronunciation is slightly more common.

Just so you understand how important this is, a group of Cambridge University academics produced a map of this, the Great Scone Map. Isn’t Britain wonderful?

An article in The Big Think adds two useful elements to the discussion: (1) It rhymes scone with either con or cone, and con strikes me as a more accurate and reliable rhyme; and (2) it includes pie charts showing how the word’s pronounced in the U.S. The charts include a category labeled “What’s a scone?” If you fall into that category, you don’t pronounce the word at all.

The rest of the newspaper article goes on to talk about how pronunciations change over time. Trap used to sound more like trep, and pat like pet. How long ago? It doesn’t say, but it does add that poor and pour used to sound different, and in some place still do. It doesn’t—wisely, I’m guessing—try to spell out how they were (or are) different. When I was a kid, a few of my classmates insisted there was a difference between merry and Mary. As they said them, there was, although you had to listen damn carefully. As I said them, there wasn’t.

Some fifty years ago, the article says, caliber was pronounced ca-LEE-ber.

Since, as I’ve said before, I’m 103 (and please note, I haven’t gotten any older since I started blogging a couple of years ago; blogging, if done consistently, will keep you young), fifty years doesn’t seem like such a long time and I’d expect a few recalcitrant ca-LEE-brists to be hanging onto their pronunciation and insisting that the rest of us are ignorant, uneducated, and just plain rude, but I’ve never heard it said that way. Which means something, but I have no idea what.

And there endeth our pronunciation lesson for the week.


You probably already know this, but you haven’t heard it from me, so let’s devote a few column inches to Trump’s announcement that he was sending an armada to the Sea of Japan to let North Korea know who the biggest kid on the block is. Except that the ships were some 3,500 miles away and sailing cheerfully in the wrong direction. If you go metric on that, it’s just possible that they were closer. A kilometer’s shorter than a mile, after all.

That has nothing to do with Britain, the alleged topic of this blog, but if Trump and Kim Jong Un manage to blow each other up it’ll involve all of us, no matter where we live, and that’s a good enough excuse to mention it. In the meantime, I just couldn’t pass by an incident that crazy without mentioning it.

If you’ve lost any battleships lately, do leave me a comment. I like to keep up with these things.


In an comment on an earlier post, Deb wrote to say, “As I am fairly new to your UK Notes, a request, although perhaps you have already written eloquently about the topic, but tube station and the tube in general… I would love some insight into how that name came to be. Subway is so obviously American and creepy and dark, but tube? Who gets the credit for that?”

Well, how could I ignore a question that says I write eloquently? Or that I might have written eloquently. Hey, I take my compliments where I can find them, even if I have to stretch the language to get them. I might indeed have written eloquently, although as it happens I not only didn’t, I hadn’t even thought about the topic. So here we go:

In the 1890s, electric trains were introduced on the London underground, and with them tube-shaped tunnels. The name dates back to that period and I haven’t seen it attributed to any one source; it just popped into the language and stayed there, as so much of the best slang does. The earlier lines (the first one opened in 1863) used steam trains and I don’t know what they were shaped like. Stars, maybe, or salamis, but “Most days I ride the salami to work” just didn’t have the same imaginative authority.

For what it’s worth, parts of the underground are aboveground. They’re sort of nothing shaped, since it’s hard to figure out where they end.

I never thought of the word subway as creepy and dark. I grew up in New York. The subway—okay, not the subway itself but some of the men on it, and in their absence, the possibility of them—was sometimes creepy but the word was just a word. Most of the time, the subway nothing more than a way to get from here to there. And some of the time—well, my brother was obsessed with trains for a while and the two of us spent hours riding them, preferably in the front car, where we could stare out the front window into the dark, watching the tracks and the signals. That part of the time, they were great. For a while, I wanted to drive a subway train when I grew up, even though women didn’t do that back then.

When we first visited Britain, Wild Thing and I saw a sign in London that said “Subway.” I knew that the trains were either the underground or the tube, but my brain—strange creature that it is—insisted that a subway was a subway anywhere in the world, so we followed the sign into a tunnel. Which led us—well, not exactly nowhere, but under a street. Then, having gotten us to the far side, it abandoned us. It was a sub-way: a way that went beneath something, in this case a street. It all made sense, but I couldn’t help thinking it had done me wrong.

As always, I’m happy to (try to) answer your questions about Britain, the United States, nuclear physics, phenomenology (if I figure out what it is) and anything else that holds your attention for more than ten seconds. I don’t promise that my answer will be of any use at all, but if I can answer it reasonably well (in my own unreliable opinion), or have fun trying, .I’ll tackle it.


And finally, a bonus: an irrelevant, news item for those of you who made it to the end: India’s top court set aside a high court decision because no one could figure out what it meant. (Please note, the top court seems to be higher than the high court. I don’t know what that means either.) The part of the decision quoted in the paper runs as follows:

The “tenant in the demised premises stands aggrieved by the pronouncement made by the learned executing court upon his objections constituted therebefore wherewithin the apposite unfoldments qua his resistance to the execution of the decree stood discountenanced by the learned executing court….

“The learned counsel…cannot derive the fullest succor from the aforesaid acquiescence…given its sinew suffering partial dissipation from an imminent display occurring in the impunged pronouncement hereat wherewithin unravelments are held qua the rendition recorded by the learned rent controller.”

Boy, was that hard to type.

Those of you who rely on Word to warn you if your grammar’s falling off the edge of the English language should be aware that it didn’t raise a single grammatical objection to that. In fairness, though, the spell check did go nuts.

Stay out of trouble in whatever unfoldments this week brings you, and do keep track of your battleships, because you never know when and where you might need them. I’m going to go walk the dogs. Somebody has to do something sensible around here.

110 thoughts on “Scones, battleships, and why the London underground’s called the tube

  1. I’m with you on scone, but, in a cream tea, does the cream or the jam go on first? Didn’t Subway lead you to a fast food outlet? Aren’t Americans renowned for having no idea of the geography of the rest of the world? I know you like questions :)

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Scone rhymes with cone and that is the end of it. I know others disagree with me, they are wrong.
    I looked at the scone map and I am from one of those odd green areas in the north of England where everyone says Scone the cone way despite being surrounded by areas of yellow indecisiveness.
    That being said I don’t spend my time arguing with people about how the word is pronounced…when faced with a scone I just eat it and solve the problem that way!

    I do have friends who are locked in the endless jam or cream first debate…

    Liked by 4 people

  3. I taught beginning readers for a time when I lived in Texas, using an absolute garbage curriculum that was totally phonics based. (It’s very hard to measure comprehension with sentences like “Nat the cat put a tin lid in the van” cuz what cat packs the car for you? Also frustrating: we meet Rags in Book 1 but don’t learn he’s a “pup” until Book 3, when short-u finally gets introduced.)

    Anyhoo. Texas. Kids with East Texas drawls. With a reading program based entirely on the nuances of short vowel pronunciation. Fun fun fun!! And SUPER effective, as you can imagine. One kiddo and I ended up making flashcards, so he could point to a picture of the word he meant. Wasn’t no other way for me to know if he was reading “tin,” “ten,” or “tan” — they all sounded identical.

    I might have had just as much success if the reader had talked about how Rags the Pup suffered partial dissipation from the imminent display occurring in his impunged pronouncement unraveling…

    Liked by 1 person

    • I never thought about phonics and accents, although now you bring it up it’s an obvious and predictable disaster. Blame it on me not having kids and not teaching them. Much like–I suspect–the people who insist it’s the only correct way to teach. I learned to read with the horrible, horrible, worse than horrible Dick and Jane readers. See Dick run. Run, Dick, run. Arghhhhhhhhhhhh. I learned to read anyway, but it was only so I could move on and read something better.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I never thought about phonics and accents, although now you bring it up it’s an obvious and predictable disaster. Blame it on me not having kids and not teaching them. Much like–I suspect–the people who insist it’s the only correct way to teach. I learned to read with the horrible, horrible, worse than horrible Dick and Jane readers. See Dick run. Run, Dick, run. Arghhhhhhhhhhhh. I learned to read anyway, but it was only so I could move on and read something better.


  4. Scone is like cone around my parts, plus I live in a PNW state that still relies on THE STATE FAIR to push scones to a new level of you-must-have-this-and-eat-it-hot-and-dripping-with-butter-and-jam ecstasy that makes everyone and their brother invade my town each September, although not just for more scones.
    Much appreciate clearing up the tube issue, which makes sense, although how very literal–let’s call it the thing that it’s shaped like–
    Also, because I have never been to New York, and my historical view of subways are clouded with dank, dirt, and creepy men hiding in corners wearing trench coats, as well as some Ninja Turtles thrown in…well that’s what brings the creepy into play for me.
    As always Ellen, Fridays are much more fun with your post to look forward to :)

    Liked by 1 person

    • The creepy men were around, although I don’t remember any trench coast–although in fairness to the subways, there were in other places as well. Aren’t they always? The ninja turtles were nowhere to be seen, but maybe that’s because of my age. They hadn’t been invented yet. Hell, gravity hadn’t been invented yet. That’s what the poles were for, so we didn’t float away.

      No one at the Minnesota State Fair sold scones when I was living there. If you couldn’t put it on a stick, no one bothered.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I like to spread jam on my scone first and then a dollop of clotted cream…….mmmmm delish. Being typically English a matching china cup, saucer and teapot are a must too. How I pronounce the word is not nearly as important as how I prepare and eat it. I hope you enjoyed your walk with the dogs and have a great weekend.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Scones and cones and jam – too many carbs in this post… :D

    Although I did think of the subways. Since I grew up in sheltered, small-town America, I’ve never been to a tube station or a subway, unless it’s the restaurant that cleverly conned people into thinking eating en entire loaf of bread for lunch was healthy.

    My ideas on subways are all Hollywood based – things that regularly get blown up, flooded, terrorized, or have lava flow through them in some epic natural disaster.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. It may be the case (I don’t keep records) that my husband and I have had more arguments over the pronunciation of the word “scone” than any other topic. I am a Scot who pronounces it to rhyme with gone; he, American-English but with a definite Southern English accent, pronounces it to rhyme with cone. Happily our kids have followed my lead because they know which side their bread is buttered, or in our case which side their scones get clotted cream on. Cream teas are something, incidentally, that I have maintained as a sort of soul food since emigrating to the US. Clotted cream is hard to track down but I am prepared to do the hard work involved to obtain some. I put the cream on first and then the jam but that is mainly because I end up with something that looks like an inverted cone (not rhyming with scone) because of the disgusting amount of cream I shove on the scone.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I figured your kids were smart, but now I have proof.

      I do the same sort of thing with food, but for us it’s bagels, the occasional loaf of challah, cornbread, baking powder biscuits. Hmm. It all seems to be breadish. It’s a strange list, half Jewish and half southern, but it feeds more than the belly.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I had to laught at “a source of conflict between the English and the Scots” said, as if that somehow narrows it into a category. I’m surprised you didn’t send a battleship to Malta in a symbolic gesture. I’ve always wondered if lots of countries have undergrounds because we often here it as the “London underground” said like its the London Philharmonic. I think of subway to mean New York. The only others I ride are in Boston (the T) and Washington DC (Metro) or Chicago (Ellen) – I typed ell four times but my phone, so…

    Thanks for another eloquently written and humorous post. I’ve got to go check on my battleship.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I bout died when you said if you put more Os in you’d fall into the North Sea!
    Always entertaining. I could go for a scone right about now :) Glad you don’t write with such a tremendous legal vocabulary.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. The Tube vs the Underground:

    The steam trains ran on the subsurface lines: the Metropolitan railway and the District railway, the Metropolitan being the world’s very first underground railway (opened in 1863). These lines were built by digging a big trench in the ground, shoring up the walls with bricks and then covering the trench with a roof. Ventilation gaps were placed in the roof at intervals to allow the smoke and steam from the locomotive to escape, though travelers still complained about the noxious atmosphere in the underground stations and the trains.

    By the late 19th/early 20th century, electrical technology had advanced enough to be used to power locomotives instead of steam. This opened up the possibility of extending London’s underground system, using this much cleaner technology. It was then that the first tube tunnels were bored through the centre of London. The tunnels were much deeper than those of the cut-and-cover underground lines, but their diameter was smaller in order to reduce the cost of tunnelling, which is why London tube trains are so small inside. The depth and small size of the deep-bore tunnels meant that steam traction couldn’t be be used, because there was no cost-effective way to exhaust the steam and smoke. Hence, electric traction was obviously the way forward.

    The first deep-level electric railway was The City and South London Railway, opened in 1890. It ran from King William Street in the City of London, under the River Thames, to Stockwell, and is now part of the City branch of the Northern Line. Then in 1900 the Central London Railway from Shepherd’s Bush to Bank was opened. It was publicised as the ‘Twopenny Tube’ (the fare was two pence for any distance), which was probably the spur to Londoners calling their underground trains “the tube”. The Central London Railway is now the core part of the Central line. Other deep-level tube lines soon followed: the Bakerloo line, the Piccadilly line, and the Hampstead tube (now also part of the Northern Line). These were all private developments – mostly with American capital – and they eventually coalesced to become the The London Underground Group, which was nationalised in the 1920s as part of London Transport.

    For these reasons, to this day, Londoner’s refer to their metro system using the terms “the underground” and “the tube” interchangeably.

    Bringing things more up to date, it’s hard to say whether the new Crossrail development (the Elizabeth Line) that’s currently under development is an underground line or a tube line. It’s been constructed with wide tunnels to take full size trains (21st century tunneling technology allows this to be done at a reasonable cost), but, like the rest of the tube network, it runs quite deep – up to 40 metres (130 feet) below ground.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Ellen, I’m in the US and I say scone rhyming with cone, as did my mother’s family who came from the Lake District. A friend on the outskirts of London told me he and his family pronounce it as rhyming with scone as well. And I’ve even read that that’s the way HM the Q pronounces it! But I put the clotted cream, which I make myself the proper way, on first. I guess that’s the Devon way.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Truly. The London tubes have only just started running all night. (I assume its all lines, although I don’t know that for a fact.) When I moved to Minneapolis, I went into shock at how bad the public transportation system was. I assumed everyplace had a system that got you places. Ha. Showed me to take things for granted. Yes, there were buses, but they didn’t run often and whoever set them up couldn’t imagine why you’d want to go anywhere other than downtown. A few buses crossed the city in other directions, but they were more of a gesture than real transportation. I learned to drive in self-defense.


      • It’s fairly easy to run the New York Subway trains all night because there are enough parallel tracks – you can do maintenance work on one pair of tracks while you run a reduced frequency nighttime service on the adjacent pair. The London Underground system largely doesn’t have this built-in redundancy, especially not the deep tube lines, so you have to stop the service to do track and signal maintenance. The compromise arrangement is to run all night on Friday night to Saturday morning and Saturday night to Sunday morning, which is when most people would benefit from an all-night service. During the rest of the week they still have to stop the service at night to do the necessary maintenance.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Great comment. Many thanks. I didn’t realize the London night service was only on weekends. I live far enough away (and these days go to bed early enough) that I haven’t followed the details. Obviously. But that’s interesting about parallel lines. Now that you’ve mentioned it, I do remember New York subway trains getting diverted from express to local tracks late at night, and vice versa. Even where the service was local only, I seem to remember there being an extra track–although I could be making that up. Memory’s a funny thing, and surprisingly open to suggestion.


  12. What an excellent post Ellen.I thoroughly enjoyed reading both it, and the comments it elicited… as For the current bun type of pastry, there is only one true pronunciation and that is SCONE( rhymes with CONE)…only Lancastrians and southerners pronounce it SCONE (rhymes with GONE), or to be more precise, anyone NOT from YORKSHIRE…. Scones aside, great writing, loved it.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Pingback: How to make clotted cream: a link | Notes from the U.K.

  14. I enjoyed that, thank you. I was a little nervous about where you were going, or would conclude, with the ‘skohn’ v ‘skohwn’ thing, and was a little concerned we might see a schoon creep in, but it turned out a treat in the end. I’m a tad biased, but I relish the fact that this tiny island still has some smashing little regional variations. When you have a moment, look into words like ‘ginnel’ and ‘twitten’ and see where you end up.

    Has anyone mentioned to Mr T that the original armada of 1588, the Spanish one that excites us Brits occasionally, was a) an invasion force and b) came to an extremely sticky end (for one reason and another)? And that power, like nature, abhors a vacuum?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I kind of doubt Mr. T. takes in any information that doesn’t agree with whatever he wants to hear, so I don’t have great hopes for any enlightenment coming from an explanation of the overtones of armada. The rest of us can snicker about it, though, and that’s worthwhile.

      Thanks for the suggestions. I’ll add them to my notes and see what they jar loose when I have the time to follow up on them.


  15. My New England accent makes it very eye to distinguish between merry and Mary. And I’ll eat a scone no matter how you pronounce it (which for the record would rhyme with bone…)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Some people seem to feel that the English-speaking world divides sharply between the cone/bone pronunciation and the con pronunciation. My feeling is that it divides between the people who argue over pronunciation and those of us who say, “Stop arguing. Eat.”

      Liked by 1 person

  16. When I originally commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added” checkbox and now each time a comment is added I get several emails with the same comment. Is there any way you can remove people from that service? Appreciate it!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haven’t a clue. Early in my blog explorations, I clicked that box on someone’s About page. That must’ve been two years ago and I’m still getting the occasional comment. On a blog that it turns out doesn’t particularly interest me. Never again. Sorry you got trapped by the comments here. If I knew how to undo it I would. But to add insult to injury, your comment got diverted into the spam folder. I only now dug it out.


  17. I have looked and I was unable to find any missing battleships, Ellen. I always thought scone was pronounced similarly to drone. Oh, well. No matter how scones are pronounced they are delicious! Another enjoyable post.

    Liked by 1 person

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