Kerr: Do you say cur or car?

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 19, 2011

SALISBURY — Over my three decades here, I’ve always been intrigued by the way people say the name “Kerr,” as in Kerr Street and Kerr Mill.
Natives — and I think this happens elsewhere in the South — often pronounce “Kerr” as “Car.”
Teachers of phonics would not understand this. I’m not sure I do, either.
Shouldn’t “Kerr” rhyme with “fur,” “purr,” “burr” and “sir?”
It should not sound like “bar,” “tar,” “far” and “mar.”
On a lark, photographer Jon Lakey and I spent an hour or so on South Main Street last Friday evening, when many people traveled to the downtown for Krazy Klearance sales. We set up on a corner at West Fisher Street, where I showed passersby a picture of a Kerr Street sign.
I asked how they would pronounce this street name and ended up canvassing more than 50 people. The consensus? Roughly 2-to-1 opted for “Kerr,” as you would say “fur.”
That’s not, of course, the final word on this subject. People who favored “Cur” over “Car” generally said it with an attitude that asked, “What else could it be?” They tended to be young people, teacher-types and transplants.
But the people favoring “Car” said it with a lot of conviction. It came, I noticed, from folks I know to be longtime or lifelong residents.
They told me about grandparents who used to live on Kerr Street, or noted that Kerrs in Rowan County history always had been called “Cars,” such as Kerr Craige Ramsay, one-time speaker of the N.C. House.
Theresa Laib, a 15-year resident who favored “Car,” also reminded me that actress Deborah Kerr (“From Here to Eternity” and “An Affair to Remember”) pronounced her name as rhyming with the “star” she was.
The debate rages on. OK, “rages” is a strong word, but many people have weighed in on Facebook in recent days.
“When we moved to Raleigh in 1992,” says Liz Friedrich of Salisbury, “we were totally puzzled by the fact that Kerr Drugs was called ‘Car’ Drugs. In an effort to fit in with our adopted state, we adopted ‘Car’ Drugs, too. When in N.C., pronounce words as the North Carolinians do. I say ‘Car’ Street. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em!”
David Potts and James Griffin say they have lived here all their lives and they go with the “Car” pronunciation.
“My grandparents lived on it (Kerr Street), and we always said ‘Car’ Street,’” Sandy Sides Greene says.
David Phan goes with the Kerr that rhymes with “fur” and notes that former basketball star Steve Kerr says it this way. Lisa Berchak Henderson, Susan Shinn and Mike Cline agree.
“It’s ‘Kurr’ like ‘fur,’” Holly Nicole says. “Duh!”
Sue Horton says she worked with a man named Kerr, and he pronounced it “Kurr.”
I heard from others that Wilmington also has a Kerr Street, and people say it both ways there, too.
“My mother was born in 1917 and grew up here, and it’s always been ‘Car’ Street,” says Carol Carpenter of Salisbury. “It depends on if you’re (from) around these parts!”
Tim Peeler is a former Salisbury Post sportswriter who now lives in Raleigh. “Transplants to N.C. say Cur,” Peeler says. “Natives say Car. Same with the lake and the (old) drug store. Just like they say Rowin’ instead of Row-AN County and Conquered instead of Con-Chord. Detect a trend?”
Jeannie Misenheimer says it’s “Car.” “Just like the old movie star Deborah Kerr,” she adds.
I’m sorry I have not consulted a linguist on this whole Kerr pronunciation thing, but I’m guessing that “Car” might have some strong roots in the Scots who settled in parts of Rowan County.
Debra Hamilton, a former Salisburian who has lived in Scotland for many years, reports that in her adopted country Kerr is pronounced “like ‘hair’ with a ‘k.’”
Oh, great, a third way to say it.
Patsy Flint, who now lives in Indiana, says she conducted the Historic Salisbury Foundation’s “History of Salisbury and Rowan County” class for 12 years and took her own survey.
“I was told by old-time residents that it’s pronounced ‘Car Street,’” she says.
Marc Hoffman says his family has lived on the 400 block of West Kerr Street since 1867. Yes, 1867. “It is pronounced the same as ‘car,’ ” Hoffman reports.
A lot of people I spoke to Friday asked what the correct pronunciation is. I leave that to you. I have bigger things on my plate, such as the proper way to say the name “Horah.”
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or