What’s in a name 1: Edmond or Edmund?

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 sometimes 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 several 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:


Halley to Hans Sloane 12 Oct 1696 (© The Royal Society, EL/H3/48)

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,

And periodic-ally.

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!).

6 thoughts on “What’s in a name 1: Edmond or Edmund?

  1. In my head, his name rhymes with daily. The song sounds funnier if you make ‘occasionally’ and ‘periodically’ rhyme the same way. But that probably just proves that I’m a very silly man. Great post.

    • Thank you! And yes, you should pronounce periodically and originally the same way. I actually grew up pronouncing his surname to rhyme with Bill Haley & the Comets but switched to the valley pronunciation in the 1980s, presumably around the time of the comet’s last apparition. And just to prove I’m a bit silly too: I think Mr Halley-as-in-valley suits him!

  2. I’d imagine that even people who knew Halley could write his first name with either a “o” or a “u”. Both spellings of the name are common, after all, and since the second vowel in “Edmond” is really a schwa, neither spelling affects the pronunciation. (Hm, I’m supposing the pronunciation hasn’t changed on that part…)
    There’s been a lot of work done on 17-18C English pronunciation, but with names the matter is always more complicated. You don’t know of any contemporary poems or songs about Halley? 🙂

    • Thanks for this, Sam. You do occasionally see his first name spelt Edmond in the Phil. Trans., but I just did a very quick analysis of the 86 titles that come up if you search for ‘Halley’ and found that Edmund appears 23 times and Edmond 5 times (the others are Mr, Dr, E, Edm). I didn’t check the dates, so don’t know if the Edmond spelling appears more often during his editorship, but the ratio is almost 5:1 Edmund:Edmond. It would be interesting to know what the ratio is in our times, but I don’t think I’m going to attempt that calculation!

      I haven’t (yet) encountered any modern poems or songs about Halley, but I’d be delighted to hear of any!

      • I couldn’t resist having a peek (as today’s Breakfast Experiment™):
        Google Ngrams suggests the ratio (Edmund:Edmond) has been between 10:1 and 6:1 for the past 200 years or so, with recent hits around 6:1.
        – The BNC gave about 8:1 for the 1990s (810:98).
        EEBO-TCP hits come to about 9:5 (10243:5748); and ECCO-TCP hits to 11:1 (1267:114)

        What can we conclude from all this? Nothing we didn’t already suspect: it looks like variation between u/o in spelling Edm?nd was greater in the Early Modern period, and has been more or less stable for the last 2-300 years. Which is no conclusion at all, since by definition spelling variation was greater in the period before standardisation.. Then again, confirmation of what we already know is not a bad result. But maybe should’ve looked for that poem or song instead!

        • Nice work! My hope is that my project will make a small contribution to reversing that ratio (well, reducing it). But perhaps what’s needed is a new song that serves as a mnemonic (EdmOnd as in cOmet type of thing) – perhaps I should launch a Halley’s Log competition?!

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