Since I became interested in Halley, I’ve been astonished at the number of basic errors I’ve seen about him, especially in regard to his name and title.
I frequently see him referred to as ‘Sir Edmond’ (he wasn’t) and even on one occasion as ‘Reverend Halley’, which is particularly inappropriate as Halley had a reputation for being irreligious and once supposedly failed to obtain an important position on that account.
He was plain Mr Halley until embarking on his first voyage in 1698, then Captain or Mr Halley until 1710 when he received his honorary doctorate, and then Dr Halley until his death in 1742.
His first name is unequivocally Edmond. Confusion arises because Halley rarely signed his first name in full but usually abbreviated it to ‘Edm.’. He also often used the Latin form ‘Edmundus’, which in turn was abbreviated to ‘Edmund.’. So even people who knew him would rarely have seen his first name written in full and would no doubt have tended to assume the more common spelling, Edmund, which would be reinforced by seeing the Latinised form in many of his published papers – but when he did sign his name in full, it was always ‘Edmond’, as can be seen in this 1696 letter addressed to Hans Sloane from Chester:
The pronunciation of his surname is more difficult to settle. I’ve come across the spellings: Halley, Hally, Hailey, Haley, Hawley – and it’s thought that this last spelling probably indicates the way it was pronounced by his contemporaries. That might be so, but then why the Hailey/Haley spelling, which seems to suggest a completely different pronunciation?
Myself, I pronounce it to rhyme with valley – but the best argument for this pronunciation is that it allows you to join in with this rousing Royal Astronomical Society drinking song, dating from 1910*:
Of all the comets in the sky
There’s none like Comet Halley.
We see it with the naked eye,
The first to see it was not he,
But still we call it Halley.
The notion that it would return
Was his origin-ally.
Cheers, Captain Edmond Halley!
* © Royal Astronomical Society. Apparently the song once had four verses. I found three reproduced in an online extract from volume 33 of The Observatory magazine with this preceding note: “It originally contained four verses, but as the last one mentions names in a manner which might be deemed invidious, I have ventured to suppress it”. Interesting. I’ll return to this song in a future post if I track down the fourth verse (and the identity of its suppressor!).