Letter to the Editor

Fork or folk?

Monday, January 28, 2008

Dear Editor,

Your recent editorial about Norfolk's Johnny Carson was interesting, although not fully informed.

According to the writer, we Nebraskans who pronounce the name of Carson's home town exactly the way HE always did, are allegedly "unitiated" in the truth of the matter.

While your newspaper apparently believes it is quite 'itiated' in the proper way to pronounce Norfolk, it seems you remain 'uninitiated' in the fraternity of correct spelling!

When I attended the University of Nebraska, I was proud to be a staff member of the student radio station where the legendary Carson had once studied his craft. Professors frequently boasted that the main studio microphone was the exact same one Johnny used while performing as a staff announcer.

Announcers often refer to ourselves as PRO-nouncers. That's because pronouncing words and proper names was always 'job one' for announcers. I think you should know that for 50 years or more, Johnny said the name of his town on radio and TV airwaves, just like everyone else in the broadcasting business pronounced it: "NOR - FOAK."

If you view the tv documentary titled "Johnny Goes Home," which is part of "The Johnny Carson Collection" DVD set, you will see and hear Johnny say "Norfolk" many times during the program which documents one of his homecoming visits.

When I 'googled' this topic, I found a lot of stuff. The controversy over how to say the town name is mentioned in most of the references. I even read an entry which said Carson always pronounced it Norfork, but I have never seen or heard any evidence that this is true.

Recently, an Omaha TV station tried to get to the bottom of this mystery. They interviewed the mayor, and many townspeople about the correct pronunciation. The mayor said it's a split decision - about fifty-fifty - among residents of the town. You can watch it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FUWvw4WEldM#

And now -- the rest of the story. Within the past 20 years or so, some of the oldtimers in the Norfolk area, who were much older than Carson, told the tale of how the town's original name, NORFORK, had been mispelled by the post office on all their signs in the early days of the settlement. City founders decided not to challenge the mispelled version, NORFOLK, but they reportedly continued to pronounce it as "NOR - FORK."

Apparently, by the time Carson was growing up there in the '40s and '50s -- the old pronunciation had faded out with the onset of newcomers. People simply said it like it was spelled, and the original town name was virtually forgotten. All the broadcast announcers in the state of Nebraska pronounced it the way Johnny did. In the '50s and '60s you could hear KBRL's local newsmen, John Holme and Jack Rogers, say it that way -- and none of us ever knew anything different.

Only a few years ago, after repeatedly hearing many of the television anchor people in Nebraska pronouncing it "incorrectly," I was compelled by old habits to telephone the Norfolk Chamber of Commerce in order to hear for myself - just how THEY said it when they answered the phone. I guess I didn't want to think I had pronounced it incorrectly all these years. Sure enough, they said it just like Carson - "NOR FOAK."

I spoke with the chamber person about all this, and she told me what she understood was the history of the town's pronunciation snafu. She said lots of younger folks pronounce it as Norfork these days, but she and most other present-day oldtimers say it the way Johnny Carson did. She said it wasn't clear just how or when Nebraska broadcasters put the 'fork' back in Norfolk. Go figure. Different strokes for different 'Norfolks.'

I'm thinking the folk-fork controversy has worked out pretty well for Norfolk's publicity needs. Maybe McCook can get something similar started. Is it Muh-cook, Mih-cook or Mac-ook?

Gary Housley


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  • There are plenty of towns in Nebraska that appear to be spelled one way and pronounced by the locals another. A couple of good examples are Cairo (spelled the same as the capitol of Egypt but pronounced like the syrup) and Hooper which is pronounced as Hupper (rhyming with supper). I think most of us know we are talking to someone from out of State if they mispronounce Beatrice or Kearney.

    Just for further discussion here is a reference for Norfolk from a book put out by the University of Nebraska in 1925, Studies in Language, Literature and Criticism, Number 6, Nebraska Place-Names by LILIAN LINDER FITZPATRICK, A.M.

    Colonel Mathewson, one of the founders of the city, told the folowing story concerning the origin of the name Norfolk. When it was time to send a petition to the post office department to have a post office established, the question of a name was brought up for consideration. Finally the name Nor'fork, a contraction of North Fork, was agreed upon, since the town was located on the north fork of the river. The petition was accepted but the post office department respelled the name Norfolk, assuming, undoubtedly, that the petitioners had misspelled the name. The office was established in 1867. Gannett's treatise on place names states that Norfolk, Nebraska, was named for Norfolk county, England. The precinct has the name Norfolk.

    -- Posted by postcardguru on Mon, Jan 28, 2008, at 1:55 PM
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