Louisville, Anyone?

Louisville skyline, Wikimedia Commons

So how do you say the name of the biggest city in Kentucky, home of the Derby and Urban Bourbon?

The spelling is easy enough. All agree on Louis-ville, that is, the city of Louis XVI of France. The settlement at the falls of the Ohio was given that name in 1780, shortly after its founding, in gratitude for the Bourbon king’s support of the American revolution.

(As it happens, the town fared better than Louis did. When the French Revolution came, the monarch whose consort purportedly said “let them eat cake” could have used a drink bearing his family name at the Urban Bourbon Trail, to be established in his Kentucky town two centuries later.)

But the pronunciation is another matter. Too many possibilities. How can a visitor know what’s right?

To be sure, all agree that the “s” of Louis should be pronounced the French way, that is, not at all. Even in the backwoods of America, evidently, this rule of French pronunciation was well enough known.

And over the years, natives of Louisville generally settled on a pronunciation that sounds like “Lou-uh-vull,” or two-syllable “Luh-vull.” Say it otherwise, and you were likely to be marked as a stranger.

But a funny thing happened in recent times. Nowadays, according to people in Louisville who ought to know, anything goes. Or at least five things. In Louisville, you can get mugs, refrigerator magnets, keychains, and shot glasses that read:








Louisville Gear, the company that sells these souvenirs, says “Looavul” is “the prevailing vocalization.” But they add,

“It’s all just a bit of fun and we invite you to be a part of it. Are we Frenchified? Hardly. Do we drag out our words with a Southern drawl? Not really. Some of us even pronounce Louisville as Looey-ville when we’re out of town! We are a bit unpredictable.”

What’s remarkable about this is not the variety of pronunciations but the celebration of them. It’s more evidence that we live in linguistically permissive times.

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