I live in a street called “Cowper Road”. That’s an unusual name, you say – and indeed it is. Why Cowper? There’s a clue in that many of the neighbouring streets are named after poets, eg Tennyson, Milton, Shakespeare and even a new development off the main drag called Betjeman Close. And indeed a bit of judicious google-ing reveals the existence of William Cowper (1731-1800) , a poet and hymn-writer (hymondist, apparently), who lived not all that far aware at Olney, Buckinghamshire which has a museum for him. You will know some of his greatest hits – “Variety is the spice of life” is one of his (actually “Variety’s the very spice of life”) and “God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform”, which I must confess entered my consciousness through PG Wodehouse rather than via the actual hymn.
The reason for writing this is to do with pronunciation. To people who live in the street (and, ever-so crucially, to people who deliver pizzas into it) the street name is pronounced Cow-Per (as in mooing animal – noise made by cat), and indeed to Harpendonians at large Cow-Per it is. And that’s probably the way you thought to pronounce it.
However, William Cowper pronounced his surname “Cooper”.
So what is a street name for? Its first level function is clearly to identify locations, and for that Cow-Per works a charm. Yet if there is also a secondary function of commemorating an individual then it’s rather sad and unfortunate that William’s surname is so systematically mispronounced.
So will I be leading a ‘Campaign for “Cooper”‘, to reverse the slight on this individual? Writing letters to the local press, persuading my neighbours to pronounce the surname correctly? Enjoining all local food delivery establishments to say “oh you mean ‘Coo-per’ road”. Well, no, because I don’t actually care that much; I care exactly enough to write this blog. Thank you for your brief attention, and spare a passing thought for William, about whom more can be found here.