*This post has been updated and revised to reflect the many comments suggesting my original post was misinformed.
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.”
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.
Fascinating piece, Louise. Thanks for clearing up the proper pronunciation for both colleges.
You’re welcome, Bill. I’d always wondered about it myself!
Funny that ‘Maudlin’ means something similar….self pitying or tearfully, sentimental.
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”.
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?
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.
Like Bedworth, which is pronounced generally as spelt, but which is Bed’uth for locals.
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.
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.
When I was at Oxford in the sixties it was always pronounced Maudlin. I doubt very much if that will have changed In a mere 60 yesrs.
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?
“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.
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.
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.
I know two Mauds (no Maudes though). One of Swedish descent, pronounced as in English, and one Brazilian pronounced Maow-de (rhymes with cloud. The E on the end is a characteristic of the Portuguese language, cf. club which in Portuguese which is ‘clue-bee’ even when the traditional spelling ‘club’ is used rather than the modern ‘clube)
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’.
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.
Yep – was a student there from 2004 – 2008 and it’s definitely, definitely “maudlin” in Oxford as well.
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.
Thanks, David. And is Magdalen St pronounced “maudlin” or “mag-da-lin”? I always used to pronounce it “maudlin” when I lived in Oxford.
PS. I might do a post on methinks, methinks …
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?
Thanks for the suggestion, Hugh. I’ve revised the post.
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.
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.
The vessel belonging to Chaucer’s Shipman in the Canterbury Tales (1390s) is called the Maudelayne. Spelling was not of course standardized until well into the 18th century but if that is how Caxton spelled it in the first print in the 1470s I guess that is pretty good evidence of how it was pronounced then.
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.
I do not understand why you refer to patrilineal ?
If i am not mistaken the father of Mary has always been in dispute, to my mind dependant on
opinion and reverence for her ? Magdalen may have been her middle name , familial name
also in disppute ?
As for Madelen or Madeleyn for as many years as I recall Maugdelyn Bridge has always been known
thus ! As a shot in the dark , I feel that is connected to her tears of sadness , therefore the river below ?
I should remember correct spelling , albeit without checking does the bridge include a g or not ?
Thanks for this very interesting article. Just this about the biblical reference: “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.”
But in Luke VII,36-50, the repentant sinner forgiven by Jesus isn’t named. Mary from Magdala only appears in the next chapter: Luke VIII, 2 as one of the women travelling with Jesus. Tradition, in paintings as well, “contracted” both episodes and identifies Mary with the repentant woman.
As a young schoolboy in Indiana, I cannot count the times that I daydreamed about why no one seemed to share my surname, Modlin, and from where it originated. Teachers and administrators could never master the short “o” sound or the show “I” in the second syllable, causing them to pronounce it Moh-leen,”
Mohdline, and just about everything except the simple, Modlin.Then, around 1993, my father and I stumbled onto an older gent in a small shop, scarcely more than a booth, near the antique shops in Everyday Square. For $13 he would provide a printout of ones surname, complete with coat-of-arms. The sheet, surprisingly, turned out to be accurate, tracing the spellings back through Modlin, Maudlin, Maudalyne, Maudalyne, and Maudalayne, to Magdalen. It explained the origin of the name was a reference to Mary Magdalene whom, it said, had nearly eclipsed the Blessed Mother in adoration in York, Oxford, and Cambridge.
I can tell you that my first American ancestor, Ezekiel Maudlin, left his home in Wednesbury (Yes, I know… the Ikea) and sailed from London to the very young American Colonies, specifically, coastal North Carolina. He made his voyage around 1650. My first North American born namesake, Edward Maudlin, was born around 1658. Sometime around 1830, the family followed Noah Webster’s pattern and changed the spelling from Maudlin to Modlin.
Pros and cons include loving knowing the origination of the name and its association with Mary Magdalene. Cons include the definition of the adjective… especially when one is a performer who is best known (theoretically, of course) for humor and quick wit. In fact, to avoid that meaning of my name, I adopted my mother’s surname, Rodriguez, for my work in broadcasting. Although I felt a bit guilty about that, my dad’s enthusiasm for my career never faded.
I cannot thank you enough for taking this old man back through history to learn everything that I have ever wanted to know about our family name.
What an interesting and poignant history of your name and your family. It’s comments such as yours that make writing this blog such a huge pleasure for me: thank you!
Interesting, I was Oxford born and bred (late ‘50s) and at least three generations before me as well, we always pronounced it as ‘Mag -del-an’ although as a child I quite often pronounced it as ‘mageldan’ and was never corrected. ( I still use that pronunciation sometimes 🤣)
Our family was from the friars, so quite close to it.
I’m Oxford born and bred (1958) and have always pronounced It Maudlin as did everyone I know, I’m from Blackbird Leys my parents were from Headington.
Hi neighbour, I grew up in Pegasus Rd, right at he end of Blackbird Leys rd 😁.
Interestingly – ok, not – was told repeatedly by Oxford people that they are Maudlin but Cambridge is Mag…
Am sure noone would ever cast aspersions