The many sights and sounds of "Buchanan"

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When I checked into a hotel on the east side of Pittsburgh yesterday afternoon, the manager told me he was from "Buckanen", West Virginia.  I just assumed that he was using some local variant of "Buchanan", and it sounded very unusual to me, since the only pronunciation of "Buchanan" I've ever heard is /bjuːˈkænən/.  When I started poking around and looking into the matter, however, it turns out to be not  at all that simple.

Unsurprisingly, the first person surnamed Buchanan I came across on the www was James Buchanan, Jr. (April 23, 1791 – June 1, 1868) , who served as the 15th president of the United States, from 1857 to 1861.  According to Wikipedia, his surname is pronounced /bʌˈkænən/ buh-CAN-nən.

The next person with the surname in question that I came across was not unexpectedly Patrick Joseph Buchanan (born November 2, 1938), American "paleoconservative political commentator, columnist, politician and broadcaster".  Wikipedia gives the pronunciation of his surname as /bjuːˈkænən/.

Then I found a town named Buchanan in Botetourt  (/ˈbɒtətɒt/ BOT-ə-tot) County, VA, and Wikipedia tells us that it is pronounced /bəˈkænən/ bə-KAN-ən

The real kicker, however, came when I tracked down the name of the town where the hotel manager was from and discovered that it is spelled "Buckhannon"!  I took this to be a phonetic spelling of the local pronunciation of Buchanan.  That may not be the case after all, since the city  took its name from the Buckhannon River, along which it is located:

Local lore holds that the Buckhannon was named for Buckongahelas* (died 1805), a Lenape ally of the British during the Revolutionary War. The most plausible accounts, however, indicate the river was named for clergyman John Buchannon, a missionary who explored the region in the 1780s.


Buckongahelas in the Lenape language means a "Giver of Presents." He was also known as Pachgantschihilas and Petchnanalas, meaning a "fulfiller" or "one who succeeds in all he undertakes."


*As a side note, this Native American (Algonquin) name reminded me of the Monongahela, which I'll be running across (on a bridge, of course!) later today.

The Unami word Monongahela means "falling banks", in reference to the geological instability of the river's banks. Moravian missionary David Zeisberger (1721–1808) gave this account of the naming: "In the Indian tongue the name of this river was Mechmenawungihilla (alternatively spelled Menawngihella), which signifies a high bank, which is ever washed out and therefore collapses."[11]

The Lenape Language Project renders the word as Mënaonkihëla (pronounced [mənaoŋɡihəla]), translated "where banks cave in or erode",[12] from the verbs mënaonkihële "the dirt caves off" (such as the bank of a river or creek, or in a landslide)[13] and mënaonke (pronounced [mənaoŋɡe]), "it has a loose bank" (where one might fall in).[


Since both words have to do with rivers, I had thought that the -hela part of Buckongahelas and Monongahela may have been related, but according to the etymologies given for them, they do not reflect the same morpheme.

There's a town in north central Ohio named Bucyrus (/bjuːˈsaɪrəs/ bew-SY-rəs), the beginning portion of which resembles what I would normally expect for Buchanan.

The origin of the name Bucyrus is not certain. It was given by Col. James Kilbourne, who laid out the town in 1821.[8] One theory is that the name Bucyrus is derived from "beautiful" coupled with the name of Cyrus the Great, founder of the First Persian Empire.[9][10] An alternate theory is that the city was named after Busiris, a city of ancient Egypt.


Going back to John Buchannon, after whom the West Virginia town and river are most likely named, his surname is a variant spelling of Buchanan, which apparently derives from Gaelic elements meaning "house" (buth) and "of the canon" (chanain).


Selected readings


  1. Phillip Minden said,

    August 26, 2021 @ 8:44 am

    I wonder how many people outsided of Scotland still pronounce Buchan and Buchanan with a /x/. The /(j)uː/ is originally a spelling pronunciation on top of it, I suppose.

    (A short, rather random search for buchan 39 steps on YouTube had mostly /ˈbʌkən/and some /ˈbjuːkən/, sadly.)

  2. Andreas Johansson said,

    August 26, 2021 @ 9:30 am

    @Phillip Minden:

    I say ['buxən] and [bu'kænən], respectively, but I couldn't tell you where I've picked up those forms, or if I've simply intuited them from the spellings.

  3. Rodger C said,

    August 26, 2021 @ 10:07 am

    Then of course there's the name Bohannon.

  4. Coby said,

    August 26, 2021 @ 11:06 am

    I once knew a person surnamed Buchan (American) who pronounced it [bju'kæn].

  5. Joseph A. Post said,

    August 26, 2021 @ 1:37 pm

    The late John Updike, whose works include a play about President James Buchanan and a novel indirectly about him ("Memories of the Ford Administration"), included in an Afterword to the former a poem about Buchanan, and noted that the reader should pronounce the name "in the frontier manner, first and third syllables emphasized." The poem begins: "The spring of 1812 blew in,/The winds were fresh and raw;/Old Hopkins told his protege/'My lad, go practice law.'/ A likely lad without a plan,/ Our hero Jimmie Buchanan."

    – Joseph Post

  6. Victor Mair said,

    August 26, 2021 @ 2:50 pm

    I like what Updike said about "in the frontier manner". He was referring to the area of the words discussed in this post.

  7. STW said,

    August 26, 2021 @ 3:23 pm

    When I lived around Pittsburgh 45 years ago I learned new pronunciations for several words that I thought I was familiar with. Enough so that when I moved back west of the Rocky Mountains I'd have a mental pause as I juggled which way to say a word. I was amused once when I later heard one Pennsylvania town pronounced (correctly) and didn't recognize it because I'd lived near there and had never heard anything but the local pronunciation before.

  8. Marisa Brook said,

    August 26, 2021 @ 4:43 pm

    I had a childhood conviction that the name was pronounced something like /'buxənɔn/. Hearing people say /bjuˈkænən/ was a major surprise, and I subsequently found myself wondering from time to time how I'd been so off-base. I grew up with a place with plenty of Scottish/Irish influence, though, and as a result of this post, I'm wondering if I'd much earlier heard someone of Celtic descent say the name. Fascinating.

  9. Joe Eaton said,

    August 26, 2021 @ 8:37 pm

    The only time I’ve heard that pronunciation of “Buchanan” was from the late great bluegrass musician Ralph Stanley, in a song called “Old Richmond Prison.” Dr Stanley–he was really proud of his honorary degree–was born in Southwestern Virgina.

  10. Cuconnacht said,

    August 27, 2021 @ 6:15 pm

    So if Buchanan derives from words meaning "house of the canon", what does "house of the canon" mean?

  11. Terry Hunt said,

    August 27, 2021 @ 7:36 pm

    @ Cuconnacht — the mythical progenitor of the Clan Buchanan was supposedly Auslan or Anselan, the son of a King of Ulster who was granted land by the King of Scots (for helping to fight the Danes) in the 11th century. One of his (supposed) descendants in the 13th century, another Anselan aka Absalon (whose existence is documented), was a clergyman (canon), and the Gaelic name meaning "Son of the Canon" (Mac a Chanonaich_) or "House of the Canon" (Buth Chanain) supposedly came to be applied to his lands and subsequently to its occupying family.

    However, there is zero evidence for the existence of the Irish prince, and genetic evidence suggests the Clan's ancestors were in Alba at least as early as the 4th century. The original Gaelic form of the family name, whether or not really meaning Son/House of the Canon, likely derived from that of the land (whatever it was and meant originally) rather than the other way round.

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