January 27, 2013
Say Wilkes-Barre out loud.
Did the second half sound like bear, berry or bar?
Area resident John Chaump has heard it said all three ways, which struck him as funny enough to design a T-shirt about it.
He and his coworkers at the Barnes & Noble College Bookstore in downtown Wilkes-Barre recently were brainstorming ideas for humorous store merchandise, when the city's multiple pronunciations popped into his head. People from here get it, and it cracks them up, said Chaump, a Bucks County native who manages the store.
The resulting product bears the first part of the city's hyphenated name, Wilkes-, followed by three written pronunciation options – bear, berry or bar. He illustrated the choices with images of a bear, strawberry and candy bar.
Each selection ends with a question mark.
Chaump said he's not sure which is officially correct. He generally ends with bear but said he sometimes inexplicitly switches to berry during conversations.
His dad grew up in the Harding area of Exeter Township and also said bear, but with an a on the end, like the last name of baseball player Yogi Berra. Chaump didn't include that as a selection on the T-shirt because he wanted to stick to options with instantly recognizable illustrations.
The T-shirts, designed with the help of general merchandise manager Jeannie Degnan, have created a stir on the Facebook social networking site, with more than 1,700 views of the photo within 24 hours of its Dec. 12 introduction, he said.
That right there was our first clue it was going to be something big, he said.
About 100 T-shirts have been sold to date at $18.98 each.
State Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski, D-Wilkes-Barre, said people have asked him the correct pronunciation several times at the state capital, and he says berry. Pashinski said he was almost certain that's the correct pronunciation, though he requested to be informed if he's wrong.
The same berry pronunciation is used by city Mayor Tom Leighton. There are always people who ask how to pronounce it, especially people moving into the city, Leighton said.
Luzerne County Manager Robert Lawton said he asked about the correct city pronunciation when he was relocating here from California a year ago. He uses berry based on his feedback.
I understand how important it is to get it right, he said, recalling his frustration when a colleague in Albany, N.Y., kept mispronouncing that city's name.
Luzerne County Historical Society Director Anthony Brooks believes all three local officials are correct in the berry pronunciation, which he uses himself.
In America, that is.
The second half of the city's name honors Col. Isaac Barre, who came from a French Huguenot family that had been banished to Ireland. In France, the accent would be on the e, for a pronunciation closer to barrAY, he said.
Wilkes-Barre was written with an Ã© as the last letter in many communications until the 1950s – a spelling still used by the historical society, Brooks said.
In the 1920s, the Wilkes-Barre Chamber of Commerce ran a public pronunciation campaign saying It's Wilkes-Barre as in strawberry, Brooks said.
He believes the different pronunciations stemmed from residents of different ethnic backgrounds pronouncing a French name. He's also heard the beara version.
It was subject to interpretation, and my experience has been if one was first raised hearing something pronounced a certain way, it lends them to say it that way, Brooks said.
He recently heard a commercial for an area business using the bear version. He recalled landing at the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport, when someone with the airplane's flight crew said, Welcome to Wilkes-Barre, with the bar version.
The whole plane yelled out, ‘It's Wilkes berry,'  he said.
The Associated Press pronunciation guide for broadcasters also concurs with Brooks' pronunciation, recommending the following: WILKS'-behr-ee.
Pashinski said he also receives inquiries about the city's hyphen.
We're unique in a good way, he said.
Brooks said the hyphen officially was added in 1905, when President Theodore Roosevelt visited the city. A local historian asked Roosevelt to settle the matter, Brooks said.
Roosevelt instructed all government departments to use a hyphen and capital b instead of Wilkesbarre.