I was down at the pub with all my friends the other night and, once again, the conversation turned to words.
And once again, by pub I mean my basement flat, and by friends I mean the windowless walls of my basement flat.
Anyway, my friends and I had finally finished retching after hearing the word moist too many times, and we found ourselves rather peckish for a snack.
It was still early in the evening, so Wally said: ‘Hey, how about a nice scone with some cream and jam, or maybe a savoury cheese scone?’
Confused, I said: ‘Wally, what’s a scone? Do you mean scone?’
He replied: ‘No mate, it’s definitely pronounced scone.’
The argument went back and forth like that for a little while, reaching a peak when we got out the dictionary and tried to decipher the phonetic symbols next to the word, but that only proved to be a fruitless exercise because – as we all know – it’s very hard to work out the pronunciation of something just by seeing it written down.
Frustrated, I decided to phone Scone Palace in Scotland – a literal palace of scones! – as surely they would know the definitive way to say this forsaken word. But they threw a massive spanner in the works when they presented a third pronunciation. They say it’s pronounced ‘scone’, which is just weird!
However, knowing Wally’s scone was 100 per cent wrong and my scone was 100 per cent right, we persevered and turned to our friend – the internet – for some more guidance.
— British Bake Off (@BritishBakeOff) June 14, 2019
Determined for a conclusion, we persisted with our investigation, and it turns out we’re not the first people to look into the great scone debate.
It seems the argument can be split into two groups – those who pronounce it ‘scone’ as in ‘bone’, and those who pronounce it ‘scone’ as in ‘gone’. I fall into the latter, while Wally sits firmly in the former. And it turns out, as with many things in life, it’s all about where you come from.
According to ‘The Great Scone Map’, drawn up by academics from Cambridge University, you can trace a pattern of the word’s divisive sounds through the UK. In Scotland, Northern Ireland and the north of England, it’s pronounced to rhyme with ‘gone’. Whereas, in the Midlands and the Republic of Ireland, it rhymes with ‘bone’ – while the rest of the UK seems to mix the two different vocalisations.
For goodness sake, in England "scone" is pronounced to rhyme with GONE, not THRONE. There can be no argument. https://t.co/udYiXswAUa
— Gyles Brandreth (@GylesB1) April 13, 2016
The queen of baking herself, Mary Berry CBE, weighed in on the debate not long ago. Appearing on Britain’s Best Home Cook last year, Berry tucked in to some freshly baked scones, and she rhymed the word with ‘gone’. However, the other judges on the show rhymed it with ‘bone’, so Mary had to stick up for the proper pronunciation. Go on Mary!
HRH Berry said – definitively – the word rhymes with ‘gone’. Though the other judges, chef Dan Doherty and food expert Chris Bavin, preferred to make it rhyme with ‘bone’. It’s certainly a (s)contentious issue (thanks).
But as these food experts couldn’t agree on what to say, I turned to a language expert instead – wordsmith, lexicographer and Countdown legend Susie Dent.
She pointed me in the direction of the Oxford Dictionaries blog, which told me it was a ‘small unsweetened or lightly sweetened cake made from flour, fat, and milk and sometimes having added fruit,’ and Australian slang for a person’s head.
But the blog also presented me with a little blue icon to press, so I could hear how the experts from the Oxford Dictionary say it. I was overjoyed when I clicked on the icon and a man’s voice clearly said ‘scone’, to rhyme with gone. Take that, Wally!
Quick to sweep the rug out from under me though, Wally noticed a second blue icon on the blog. We clicked it and, clear as day, a woman’s voice rhymed ‘scone’ with ‘bone’.
I shook my head in disbelief as I read:
There are two possible pronunciations of the word scone: the first rhymes with gone and the second rhymes with tone.
In US English the pronunciation rhyming with tone is more common. In British English the two pronunciations traditionally have different regional and class associations, with the first pronunciation associated with the north of England and the northern working class, while the second is associated with the south and the middle class.
— Susie Dent (@susie_dent) April 13, 2016
Exasperated, I turned back to Susie Dent, who informed UNILAD:
The first record we have of the word ‘scone’ is from the 16th century, when it slipped into English from the German ‘schonbrot’, ‘fine bread’. Such an innocent word seems an unlikely provocateur of fiercely divided opinion some 500 years later, but how we pronounce ‘scone’ (quite apart from the cream vs. jam debate) is still hotly contested.
So it may be a source of bitter disappointment to learn that, if you look up ‘scone’ in the Oxford Dictionary, it will tell you that it can happily rhyme either with ‘gone’, or with ‘cone’, and that both are accepted as standard. In other words, everyone is right.
Where once it was perhaps a matter of class (the ‘gone’ sound is said to be more middle class), it is now much more about your personal geography.
Speaking about how she pronounces the word herself, Susie added:
I come from the south, where both pronunciations co-exist, and it’s always been ‘sk-onn’ for me – the version that’s overwhelmingly picked in Scotland, northern Ireland, and northern England too. In many parts of the Midlands, and in southern Ireland, the ‘cone’ sound has the upper hand.
Lexicographers aren’t meant to be subjective – English is a democracy, and usage is the only government we have – but for me giving ‘scone’ a ‘cone’ and ‘bone’ sound feels a little forced and fussy. That said, the vowel in that original German ‘schonbrot’ is closer to that than to the short ‘o’ in ‘gone’.
In the end, fittingly, it’s all a matter of taste. But that won’t stop the arguments. Long live the scone.
— Susie Dent (@susie_dent) September 20, 2018
While we should all respect Susie’s authority, lord knows the UK loves a good divisive vote, which is why YouGov decided to do a poll (pronounced pole?) about the simple act of pronouncing the ‘s’ word.
Reflecting the bitterly divided state we’re in, the poll found 51 per cent of people from the UK pronounce scone to rhyme with ‘gone’. An overwhelming majority, I’m sure you’ll agree.
Tired and hungry, and agreeing to disagree, Wally and I finally went to get some scones to eat. However, the moment I saw him put the cream on before the jam – like a heathen! – I got up, flipped the table over in disgust and stormed out. Sorry mate, but that’s a step too far.
Susie agreed with me, naturally, saying: ‘And, of course, it’s always jam first. Right?’ Right.
Susie Dent is currently on tour with ‘The Secret Life of Words’, you can find dates and tickets here.
If you have a story you want to tell send it to UNILAD via [email protected]
Charlie Cocksedge is a journalist at UNILAD. He graduated from the University of Manchester with an MA in Creative Writing, where he learnt how to write in the third person, before getting his NCTJ. His work has also appeared in such places as The Guardian, PN Review and the bin.