And we thought 'Devon' rhymed with 'heaven'

We love Indian food. We arrive in a new city and the go-to street for aloo gobi is usually one of the first things we ask the locals. And of course, here in Chicago, there’s an obvious place to go. Except we couldn’t find it on any map or GPS. No ‘Diwan Avenue’ anywhere.

So I googled ‘Diwan avenue Chicago’ and…..but you’re there already. On Devon Avenue. Now I appreciate there are some words I may never be able to say correctly here such as ‘water’ and ‘eight’. But my other half comes from Devon and I assure you English Devon rhymes with heaven – which is also where its famous cream comes from. And its men.

I asked around, I googled and I’m still stumped. Regional developer John Lewis Cochran (who apparently had a sense of humour) changed Church Street to Devon Avenue in the 1880s, naming it after Devon Station on the Main Line near his home town of Philadelphia. For the same reason, he also named Bryn Mawr and Ardmore. And the sense of humour? Bryn Mawr is Welsh for ‘big hill’.

I called Philadelphia’s Devon but it’s definitely a heavenly-sounding Devon so that did not help pronunciation-wise. I then found a list of Chicago street name changes thanks to the Chicago Historical Museum. This also said Devon was changed by Cochran and the link was Devonshire in England but added ‘which was named for a French family by the name Devonne’ .

While I’m not so sure about Devonshire being called after a French family, the spelling of the name ‘Devonne’ is the best possible explanation I’ve found so far as to why Chicago Devon sounds more like ‘divine’ than ‘heaven’. Any more suggestions, drop me a line.

Anyway, it wouldn’t be first time French pronunciation has supposedly been adapted into Chicago-speak. An obvious example is the popular story about the city’s name being a Frenchification of the Miami-Illinois word ‘shikaakwa’ or wild onion which, thanks to the first French explorers, became ‘Checagou’.

And it also made me think about another great anglicization involving one of Chicago’s more famous sons, Walt Disney.

Disney was born in 1901 on Tripp Avenue in Hermosa but his family’s origins can be traced back to France and the Normandy town of Isigny-sur-Mer. Two of Walt’s ancestors, Hugh d’Isigny and his son, followed William the Conqueror to England and remained there after William’s victory in 1066. And d’Isigny became Disney.

Today Isigny is better known for its butter. But the Disney Company hasn’t forgotten which side its French bread is buttered on. So if you ever go to Disneyland Paris, look out for d’Isigny butter in all its restaurants.

Devonne, Checagou, d’Isigny – what else I wonder? Could Wicker Park actually be where the first French settlers went courting and said ‘Oui, coeur!’ Or perhaps there was a French old-timer called Sydney who invented happy hour when he doled out two drinks for the price of one. He could have become known affectionately as ‘Two glasses Syd’ or, in French, ‘Deux verres Syd’.

Or Diversey Ave could have been named after beer brewer Michael Diversey. But if I wasn’t right about the French Connection, at least I was about the alcoholic one!

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Filed under: culture, tourism, Uncategorized

Tags: language

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