How to pronounce “Magdalene” in Britain, and why

Mary Magdalene, Caravaggio, 1594-1596 / Wikipedia Commons

*This post has been updated and revised to reflect the many comments suggesting my original post was misinformed.

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When I’m back in Blighty, I stay at my family home in Magdalen Road in South West London. Try asking a taxi driver to take you to “Maudlin” Road (as the name Magdalen(e) is historically pronounced in the UK), and you’ll probably be met with a blank stare — even by those London cabbies who’ve aced The Knowledge. You are actually more likely to hear that increasingly dated pronunciation when you visit Cambridge, whose Magdalene College sounds more like Maud than Magda. The same is true for its sister college in Oxford — which is spelled nearly the same way but without the final “e”. Which pronunciation — if either — is correct: the “maudlin”-sounding Cambridge and Oxford colleges, or the more modern three-syllable “MAG-duh-lin” that you’ll hear nowadays in most other parts of England?

Magdalene College, Cambridge explains on its web site the history of its name and why it’s pronounced like the self-pitying adjective. “The College at its refoundation by Lord Audley in 1542, was dedicated to St Mary Magdalene. The choice of the name of Mary Magdalene appears to have had a touch of vanity. In many early documents, the name is clearly spelt as pronounced: ‘Maudleyn’, containing within it the name of Audley himself! The final ‘e’ on Magdalene was an attempt, with the advent of the postal service in the mid nineteenth-century, to distinguish us from our sister College, Magdalen Oxford.”

Louise Rayner: Cambridge Gates of Magdalene College / Wikimedia Commons

Let’s jump back now to the Magdalene Estate in London (from which my street takes its name), which was named after Magdalen College, Oxford – the original owners of the land. The estate’s web site  goes into more detail about the historically evolving pronunciation of the famous Biblical surname: “In the Middle Ages in England (1100-1550, say), there was a widespread French influence on the pronunciation of names and places. Vowels became lengthened, especially the ‘a’. So, for example, the word ‘fall’ came to be pronounced ‘fawl’ instead of its earlier ‘fahler’. Magdalen came under the same influence at about the time the colleges were being founded in Oxford (1448) and Cambridge (1552). You try to say Magdalen with a long ‘a’ as in ‘Fall’ and it comes out as Maudlin. The ‘g’ disappears in a tricky diphthong.'”

This interesting evolution of the “a” sound in proper names is borne out by the etymology of the word maudlin, meaning “self-pityingly or tearfully sentimental” (OED).  As the Online Etymology Dictionary explains, the adjective dates from about 1600, meaning “tearful,” and that was from the Middle English female proper name Maudelen (early 14th century), from Magdalene (Old French Madelaine), a woman’s name, originally the surname of Mary the repentant sinner forgiven by Jesus in Luke vii.37. In paintings, she was often shown weeping as a sign of repentance. Meaning “characterized by tearful sentimentality”, maudlin is recorded by the 1630s.

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21 thoughts on “How to pronounce “Magdalene” in Britain, and why

  1. Nigel

    Just to point out that both Oxford and Cambridge colleges are pronounced “maudlin”. I live in Earlsfield where there is a Magdalen Road (originally cutting through land owned by the Oxford college) but because this is south London everyone pronounces it “mag-da-lin”.

    Reply
    1. Louise Post author

      Thanks so much, Nigel, for your comment. I thought I had it on fairly good authority (from graduates and residents of both Cambridge and Oxford) that nowadays they pronounce it more “historically” in Cambridge and more like modern Londoners in Oxford — but you’re not the first person to have told me otherwise, so I stand corrected. But this is clearly something that’s ever-changing, and perhaps when we say “it’s pronounced” this way or that way, we should also be asking “by whom?” I wonder if there’s a difference between the “townies and the gownies” in the way they pronounce their Magdalen(e) College, and whether that difference is greater in Oxford, which is a larger city?

      Reply
      1. Neil

        I’ve lived around Oxford all my life and it seems to me that incomers are more likely to use a short ‘a’ and articulate the g , whereas established residents tend to adopt the traditional pronunciation.

        Reply
      2. Hugh Molloy

        I grew up in the 60’s by Magdalen Road in south London that Nigel mentions. It is a hill with Earlsfield at the bottom and Wandsworth Common at the top. Although it has been somewhat gentrified now, I remember Earlsfield being described in a contemporary survey as “an area of largely artisan older housing” whereas the top of the hill had larger properties and the leafy open spaces of the common. I lived about half-way up so had a foot (and friends) in each camp. It was a locally recognised phenomenon that that those at the lower end of the road pronounced it as written (with the short “a” and hard “g”), while those at the top were firmly in the “maudlin” camp. Not so much Town vs. Gown but an example of how the class system worked in mid-20th century London. Just to complicate matters further, the parish church serving the “posher” end of the road is dedicated to St. Mary Magdalene but I never heard this pronounced in any other way than Mag-da-leen.
        The Oxford connection with the area is marked in some other street names; Isis St, and Waynflete St. being two that spring to mind.

        Reply
        1. Louise Post author

          Thanks, Hugh, for your fascinating comments. The Magdalen Rd you refer to is the same one I return to each year when I visit my family home in Blighty, as mentioned at the beginning of my post. So it’s an area very familiar to me – as is Oxford, where I lived before moving to the States. That social class might also be a factor in the pronunciation of “Magdalen(e)” (as well as geography and age) is something I hadn’t realized or considered before, so this adds another interesting dimension to the conversation. Thank you.

          Reply
  2. Caroline D

    Very interesting posts – thank you all. I live in the former “Mary Magdalen almshouses”. There is a road nearby, Magdalen Road, leading to the site of the medieval Mary Magdalen Leper Hospital. I’m still confused about how to pronounce where I live. The biblical Mary Magdalen(e) is surely always pronounced “mag-da-lin”, so shouldn’t my home and the road be pronounced similarly?

    Reply
  3. Louise

    “Try asking a taxi driver to take you to “Maudlin” Road (as the name Magdalene is historically pronounced in the UK),”

    It may be historically pronounced that way in England but not anywhere else in the UK.

    Reply
  4. Suzanne Baker

    Louise….I couldn’t have worked this out without your help. Being a mediocre speaker of French, I felt there was some connection as well as to the name Madelaine.
    My father’s mother was named Maude….the first daughter after three boys. Her father was a fire and brimstone Baptist preacher. I always wondered how the name was derived. Recently I was watching a BBC show based in Oxford and there was an event tied into Magdalene Bridge. I was curious as to why the locals kept calling it Maudlen Bridge. Now I know thanks to you. My grandmother was born in 1878, and I have not run across that name any other time in 30 years of research. Her ancestors were from England not far from Oxford, so that also helps us point to a general area to possibly research others. A huge thank you for having that curiosity that we apparently share.

    Reply
    1. Louise Post author

      Hi Suzanne,
      Thanks for sharing your very interesting story. I don’t think I know any Maudes, but I wonder how many Maudes come from the Oxford area. I’ll look into it!
      Thanks for leaving your comment and feedback: I appreciate it.
      Louise

      Reply
  5. ralph

    Louise,

    As a past research fellow at Oxford for many years and for the benefit of your readers, I assure you that Magdalen College has always been pronounced ‘Maudlin’ by the academic community and not as you described in your original post with a hard ‘g’.

    Best regards,
    Ralph

    Reply
    1. Louise Post author

      Dear Ralph,
      Thanks so much for your note – and for correcting me, as several other people have done in earlier comments. Since I lived in Oxford for a number of years before moving to the States, I thought that my anecdotal research among my friends in Oxford – most of whom weren’t part of the academic community – would reflect the way all residents of Oxford pronounced the name of the college. But it could well be the case that there’s a difference between academics and (as Neil pointed out in an earlier comment) “incomers”, who might not pronounce it in the traditional Oxford-and-Cambridge way. I really appreciate your input, and again stand corrected.
      Thanks again!
      Louise

      Reply
  6. David Thomas

    Whilst I confirm that in Oxford both the College and the nearby bridge are pronounced ‘maudlin’, curiously the church of St Mary Magdalen, on Magdalen St, is pronounced ‘mag-da-lin’ and that is what you had best say to a taxi driver.
    I studied chemistry, so I’m none the wiser as to why! Over to the historians, methinks.

    Reply
    1. Louise Post author

      Thanks, David. And is Magdalen St pronounced “maudlin” or “mag-da-lin”? I always used to pronounce it “maudlin” when I lived in Oxford.
      Louise/Glosso
      PS. I might do a post on methinks, methinks …

      Reply
  7. Hugh

    In view of the many comments correcting you, and your gracious acceptance of them, perhaps it might be best if you were to correct your piece, or to simply delete it?

    Reply
  8. Richard

    Thanks for this! I was born and raised in Oxfordshire and my Dad went to Magdalen College School in Oxford. I had been told by many him and many other different people that Oxfordians like us pronounced the Oxford college “Maud” while the Cambridge college was pronounced as spelt, Magda. I briefed my son and wife when they visited both university open days, and was subdued when they came back from Cambridge and corrected me! I should have checked first. Hangs head in shame.

    Reply
  9. Dean Musk

    This is an enjoyable and lively discussion of an issue which niggled me for a long time. Apparently it is an issue that has rumbled on for hundreds of years as when Magdalen College, Oxford was established in 1458 there was already a debate as to which pronunciation was correct. The founder William of Waynflete put this issue to bed by including in the incorporating articles of the college his preferred pronunciation i.e. Maudlin. As to where the differing pronunciations arose from this was related to the general and widespread change in English pronunciation – known as the Great Vowel Shift to scholars of the English language – that began in the 1400s and took more than 200 years to complete. It seems William of Waynflete was not in agreement with the middle vowel shift and attempted to stem the tide. To this very day he is still holding the line in one corner of Oxford. That is the corner by the college and the Magdalen bridge which are both certainly still pronounced as Maudlin. William’s writ does not extend to the church on the other side of Oxford or to the general pronunciation of the word in England.

    Reply
  10. Paul Wright

    On a related note, with regard to the surname Maudlin, turns out it shares a common Y DNA origin with several similarly routed names that eventually found themselves as Modlin, Medlin, Maitlen, Madelin, Meadlin, Maitland, etc. Most of these are from individuals tested in the US though one English Madelin was found to have a common Y DNA origin, thought to be back round the year 1500 or earlier. That’s not to suggest all persons with these surnames share an origin as there have been several Medlin/Medlyns with origins in Cornwall and Maitlands with origins in Scotland, that do not share Y DNA belonging to the group just mentioned, which appear to be rooted in central England, around Shopshire & Warwickshire.

    It is not currently known how a female first name became a patrilineal surname, though there are several theories.

    Reply

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