Thursday 21 July 2011


Watching the goings-on in the House of Commons yesterday, I was reminded of another unusual British surname with a pronunciation over which you might hesitate if you came across it in writing. Andrew Selous is the MP for Southwest Bedfordshire, and when the Speaker called on him by name we heard it spoken: səˈluː.

Older readers will recall the Selous Scouts, the special forces of the Rhodesian Army. Nowadays there is a Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania. Both are named after Frederick Selous (1851-1917), a British explorer and big-game hunter.

The Oxford Names Companion suggests that this surname is English and ‘of uncertain origin, perhaps a habitation name from an unidentified place named with the OE elements s(e)alh willow + hūs house’. I would have thought that a name with that etymology would be more likely to be pronounced ˈseləs (cf. Backus from bǣc ‘bake’ + hūs , Malthus from mealt ‘malt’ + hūs ) — which it isn’t.

But maybe that etymology is not correct. Wikipedia states here that Selous is the Anglicized form of the Dutch name Slous. If that were the case, I would expect it to have been pronounced in Dutch as slɔus, which might give English slaʊs. Wrong again.

Very much more plausibly, Wikipedia tells us in its article on the big game hunter that the name was originally French.
Frederick Courteney Selous was born on 31 December 1851 at Regents Park, London, as one of the five children of an aristocratic family, third generation of French-Huguenot heritage. His father, Frederick Lokes Slous (original spelling) (1802–1892), was notably Chairman of the London Stock Exchange.

As a French name, Slous would be expected to be pronounced slu. Equally, the spelling Selous implies səlu. And French schwa is a very variable entity: cela can be sla or səla. This origin would satisfactorily account for the English pronunciation səˈluː.


  1. "As a French name, Slous would be expected to be pronounced slu."

    Yes, this would be expected but I'll forewarn others that deceptively spelled names exist in French. One French name that I received a lecture on was Ouellet. It's not my fault. I honestly expected it to be pronounced /wəle/ in French. Apparently not. It's still /wəlet/ with a curiously unsilent final -t.

    One must learn of its alternate spelling Ouellette before one catches on that somewhere in the family's history the name must have been anglicized... at least I assume (... or should I dare??). Needless to say, learning French can be a frightening experience. Lol.

  2. In Jersey, the Slous family name supposedly derives from an English soldier, Philip Slowe, who settled in 1651, marrying a Marie Le Couteur. The name is attested in the placename of Le Carrefour Selous. In accordance with the rule of three consonants, the name in its Jèrriais form alternates between Slous and Sélous.

  3. And double-checking in "Jersey Place Names" confirms two field names deriving from the Slous family: one is "Les Sloue" and the other "Le Clos Selous".

  4. I've met him a few times and know people who know him better, and everybody seems to pronounce his name ˈseləs. But why not just ask him?


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