There I was, driving in my car, thinking about a lake named Carr… Err, I mean Kerr

December 18, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 18, 2014

On Wednesday evening, I was making a short drive to a local coffee shop. I fiddled with the radio and found myself listening briefly to a North Carolina State men’s basketball broadcast on the school’s flagship station, Raleigh’s 101.5 FM WRAL.

I didn’t listen very long before changing the station, and I didn’t pay much to what I heard, but broadcaster Gary Hahn uttered a sentence that stuck in my mind.

“When you’re feeling it, when you’re a shooter, the basket looks as big as Kerr Lake,” Hahn exclaimed. He was discussing a hot-handed player — presumably senior guard Ralston Turner, who scored 33 points in the Pack’s 83-72 home win over Tennessee.

The phrase is a bit silly. The basket obviously never changes size — it’s the same for every player, no matter how well or how poorly she or he is shooting. And even if the basket did look bigger to an athlete, how would that make it easier for a player to hit a shot?

Still, it was fun to imagine a player shooting at a huge body of water. Fun, but weird, for organized basketball is almost exclusively an indoor sport; even in the rare cases when a competitive league of note holds outdoor contests, hardwood floors are still employed. Hardwood floors flanked by bleachers are rarely found alongside lakes, at least in my experience.

And how would this setup work, exactly? Would there be a regular hoop at one end of the court and a body of water at the other? Would there be some kind of elevated pool for the hot shooter (or anyone else) to aim at?

Well, all of this is nonsense, a goofy distraction as I drove along familiar roads. But Hahn’s exclamation caught my ear, and my brain, for another reason: The way that Kerr Lake is pronounced.

Reading the name, you might think that “Kerr” rhymed with “err.” In fact, as I know from living in Vance County, the North Carolina jurisdiction that contains most of the lake, it rhymes with “car.”

Hearing the name “Kerr Lake,” though, at least as pronounced by locals, you’d think it was spelled “Carr Lake.” Carr, after all, is a relatively common last name, and the spelling matches up well with the pronunciation. Kerr, on the other hand, would never be associated with the “ar” sound — at least in most of the country.

(I make that assertion, by the way, as a man raised in a New York City bedroom community who believes that I don’t speak with any particular accent.)

The point is, reading the name, the typical American would misapprehend its pronunciation, whereas hearing the name, the typical American would misapprehend its spelling. Virtually the only way to be set straight is with the help of a North Carolinian.

So I pondered that as I drove, and I thought about other place names in Henderson — that’s the county seat of Vance, where I lived for a few years a lifetime or two ago — that have unusual pronunciations. There are a few, I guess, but only one thing came to mind as I plumbed the depths of my sieve-like brain: Parham.

When I lived in Henderson, I lived off of Parham Road. The town’s hospital was called Maria Parham Medical Center. The pronunciation of that name was unexpected: not ma-REE-ah PAR-hum, or PAR-ham, but ma-RYE-ah PAIR-um. This mispronunciation was something that Hendersonites almost immediately noticed and correctly.

As my short drive continued, it occurred to me that I knew of another place name in North Carolina that ended in “-ham” but was pronounced “-um.” That place, of course, is my current hometown of Durham, pronounced “DURR-um,” and sometimes joking rendered as “Derm.” I’d never made the Parham-Durham connection before, and I’ve no idea whether the association has any meaning or represents some kind of coincidence.

It’s funny, the places that a single sentence from a college basketball broadcast encountered at random can lead you.

At least, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it!

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