Are you an out of towner visiting for a unique New Orleans event like Jazz Fest? Are the mixed pronunciations, yet somehow French street names taking you for a whirl? Well, chances are if this is you, you have come to the right place for help.
Don't feel bad, some New Orleans natives have trouble with this too. This has caused them to avoid pronouncing street names like "Rocheblave" for almost two years now. More than this, these pesky street names may have caused them to not go to their local Wal-Mart for months upon moving, not because of moral hesitancy, but because translating the oral "Tchoupitoulas" to the street sign was a few blocks too far from a logistical jump.
If you are a New Orleans native however, and are proficient in the pronunciation in street names, stick around and try to help the state's visitors and steady learners. For if there is one thing the streets of New Orleans tell, it is a complex history that should be shared and explored by everyone visiting or not visiting New Orleans.
A Brief History of Beloved New Orleans Streets and Names
While originally enjoyed by the native Choctaw, then technically founded by the French, then fought for by the Spanish and finally, Americans, it is no surprise that the pronunciation of these streets follow no classic linguistic guideline. When referring to the supposed origins of these street names, there still seems to be insight into what the local pronunciation really is. This is most evident through the streets Dumaine, Toulouse, and Chartres. These are all names based around the actual names of the illegitimate children of Louis XIV, yet they are pronounced in an American and a completely illogical way.
This became clear to me when I had a friend visiting from France. She
was lost, telling me over the phone her location in a perfect French
pronunciation of the street names.
However, some street called "Shart Street," became a constant back and forth. It was a place I had never heard of, but apparently she insisted was someone on her GPS. To understand what she was saying, I asked her to drop the French and say it like a cowboy. Haltingly, reluctantly, she responded with "Chart-Errs?" I instantly knew where she was.
The city itself is named after Philip II, Duke of Orleans, nephew of Louis XIV, notably scandalous de facto regent of France for seven years (1715-1723). In a desperate attempt to bail the country out of Louis XIV's extravagant debt, Orleans and John Law named the streets of this city in ways, where they would sound blatantly royal. Law's genius was based on the idea that a monarch should pay off his debts by collecting lots of gold from his subjects (rather than liquidating even one wing of Versailles). Often called the inventor of inflation, Law set out to make New Orleans an extravagant, impressive investment, and a source of national pride worthy of draining your wages. Thus the streets were named politically, after French royalty, as a constant reminder that without your king, you get no city, so send him your money quick!
And I didn't even mention Bienville, who was here toiling away while Louis XIV was naming himself the Sun King. Needless to say, there was much going on with France and the naming of our streets. So, of course the geography of New Orleans is much more complex than can be explained on one page. If you really want to learn the history (and chuckle in the meantime), pick up a copy of Frenchmen, Desire, Good Children by John Chase.
Your Pre-Content Guide for Understanding Navigation in New Orleans
In most cities, cardinal directions are a handy navigation tool. You can
go north on a street, turn west at some landmark, south at McDonalds, and reach
your destination. When visiting New Orleans, however, this is not the case. Aside
from the charming and conscious lack of familiar, self-orienting fast food
chains in the most heavily visited sections in New Orleans, there is the
dizzying fact that directions mean almost nothing when trying to find your way
around any part of the city.
To start off, go ahead and note that the West Bank is simply "the other side of the river," and realize that streets that run parallel in one part of town intersect in another. Oh, and the nationwide east-to-west I-10 dips down into a concave north/south triangle just for fun. Better terms to use to understand the orient of the city is to think of things as River Side and Lake Side, and to remember to smile when you ask for directions.
In the meantime, rather than stumble around
the Marigny, illuminated and blinded by your smart phone's GPS, use the guide
below to take a shot at pronouncing these bad boys. But, let's be honest, you're probably right whether you call Clio
Street "CLEE-oh" or "CL-EYE -oh" when understanding the city's
Your Quick Guide of Pronunciations
Chef Menteur Highway: SHEF-man-TOUR
Clio: CLEE-oh (or C-L-ten!)
Fontainebleau: "Fountain Blue"
Metairie: MET-a-ree (or "Metry")
(to be hip, say simply "Chop")