The first time someone in England suggested we meet at the mall, I thought they were joking around, since they pronounced it to rhyme with pal. I heard this pronunciation on and off again, but when I was invited to meet someone at the [mæl] tonight, I decided this issue needed more investigation.

My dining companions were mixed in whether they'd call it a [mæl] (rhyming with pal) or a [mɔl] (rhyming with tall), but they agreed that they only use the American-like pronunciation [mɔl] when referring to shopping malls--and especially in the phrase shopping mall. They also agreed that calling such things malls feels like a recent borrowing from AmE--that they feel the "real" name for such things is shopping centre. In fact, people usually refer to enclosed shopping areas by their proper names, such as the Putney Exchange or Churchill Square. Better Half and I don't know of any enclosed shopping cent{re/er}s in the UK named X Mall (but I'm sure one of you will point one out if there is one).

This is not to say that the word mall is a recent import to BrE--far from it. But in its native environment here these days it most usually rhymes with pal. For instance The Mall (a tree-bordered walk in St James's Park, London) is usually pronounced as [mæl]. Pall-mall, historically a game, but now (in the form Pall Mall) a street in London, is similarly pronounced with two [æ] sounds in modern BrE. In fact, mall originally meant an alley in which pall-mall is played.

In my childhood in the US, Pall Mall cigarettes were pronounced [pɔlmɔl], but I was taught that the place in England was [pɛlmɛl], rhyming with bell. Apparently, I was being taught out-of-date British English. While today it's pronounced with [æ], the 1904 New English Dictionary records it as [ɛ]. Of course, when you're young, you think your teachers are ancient, but I don't think they were really that ancient. This just goes to show that dictionaries, like any other reference book, go out of date.

And all of this is related to pell-mell (the similar form of which is thought to have affected the pronunciation of pall-mall). This has the bell vowel, but, according to the OED, BrE and AmE stress it differently, with Americans stressing the two syllables equally and Britons putting slightly more stress on the mell. For what it's worth, three English people pronounced this in conversation tonight, and I didn't notice any stronger stress on mell. But I'm not a phonetician, I just play one on the Internet.*

The fact that the shopping kind of mall and the outside kind of mall are often pronounced differently in BrE seems to suggest that people don't see the two types of things as very related. In AmE, both are pronounced the same (the mall being the local shopping cent{er/re} and The Mall being the green area around which the Smithsonian Institute is arranged)--but that doesn't mean that people necessarily see them as related. After all, people don't necessarily see the bird duck and the action duck as being related--although they historically are.

*Joke assistance for the young and/or non-American: In the US, it's illegal for licensed medical doctors to promote products in advertising. In the early 1980s, a (AmE) cough syrup/(BrE) cough medicine was therefore advertised by a soap-opera actor who said "I'm not a doctor, but I play one on TV" and then going on to plug the product. It was such a ridiculous premis{e/s} for an ad(vert) that "I'm not a X, but I play one on Y" became a popular joke. In fact, googling "but I play one on TV" results in over 87,000 hits. As a phrase, it's been discussed at the Language Log. (The link is to the third instal(l)ment of that discussion, but you can link to the earlier ones from there.)


  1. The shopping centre in Crawley, West Sussex, is called The County Mall. Its radio adverts pronounce "Mall" to rhyme with "pal".

  2. I think I would pronounce the second syllable with more stress - PalMAL and PellMELL.

  3. Interesting article in World Wide Words on "Pall Mall"
    ( ).

    The Online Etymology Dictionary (I don't necessarily trust its authority, but it is the only etymological dictionary I have to hand at the moment) dates the use of the word in connection with shopping to 1963. Covered markets and shopping arcades go back much further than that, obviously, e.g. the famous Burlington Arcade, built in Regency times. I have often heard the word 'arcade' used as a synonym for 'mall'.

  4. I (southern BrE) would also use 'shopping precinct'.
    I'm trying to work out what, if any, my distinction is between 'arcade (of shops)' - (not usually 'shopping arcade'), '(shopping) precinct', and 'shopping centre'. I think they ascend in size in that order, probably. But like you say, if referring to one in particular I'd generally use its given name, which may not follow my size-dependent rule of thumb.
    I would tend to think of an arcade generically as a single, linear, covered 'corridor' of shops. Queens Arcade in Cardiff, for instance, I would call Queens Arcade, but generically I would call it a shopping centre or possibly a precinct; Chelmsford, where I grew up, has the High Chelmer shopping centre, which in my family (and I think informally elsewhere in town) is 'the precinct', and the much newer Meadows Centre, which is just that, or simply 'The Meadows'. Huge free-standing out-of-town type places like Lakeside or Bluewater on the edge of London are always shopping centres.

  5. Wow. As a Canadian, I have never heard or used the word mall to refer to anything but a shopping centre (and Pall-Mall cigarettes). Mall is used in both full names (Stone Road Mall) and generic references (going to the mall). Not that I go to either very often.

    I'd be interested in what you have to say about purses vs. handbags. I talked a bit about it on my blog but I'm no lynneguist. ;)

  6. Years ago I heard of a good graffito:


  7. Those who are familiar with the poems of John Cooper Clarke will know his most famous work Beasley Street. An updated version of this poem, Beasley Boulevard was broadcast on BBC radio tonight, containing the lines

    The mall(1), the mall(2),
    Whatever you want to call it,
    Serves that glittering horde

    (1)rhyming with pal
    (2)rhyming with tall

    Makes you wonder if Johnny Clarke is a reader of this blog!

    The original poem can be found at . I can't find the new one online, but for the next week, tonight's broadcast of JCC reading it can be heard via the BBC's "Listen Again" facility at (fast-forward about 1 hour 15 minutes into the show).

  8. Thanks, strawman! Very interesting!

  9. I grew up in North Carolina calling it cough medicine, not cough syrup. My partner Walt grew up in Albany NY and he says his family called it cough medicine too.

  10. I think your teachers may not have been that far behind the times in pronouncing Pall Mall /pɔlmɔl/. It's not so much an anomalous pronunciation but an instance of received pronunciation tending to pronounce short 'a' almost, but not quite, as /ɔ/. RP was still mainstream for broadcasters and the upper class until the fifties or thenabouts, but today even native BrE speakers are only likely to ever hear it used by the Queen.

  11. The word "mall" used to cause me a lot of bother when I first moved to NY. It just didn't sound right to me and I felt so self-conscious saying it that I tried to avoid it like the plague. That and "boulevard"...

  12. Johnson's Dictionary, Tenth Edition, M,DCC,XCII, lists:

    "PALL MA'LL. [pila, and malleus, Latin; pail maile, French.] A play in which the ball is ftruck with a mallet through an iron ring."

    I have left out the symbol like an elongated S which indicates a noun, (immediately after "PALL MALL." as I am unable to type it. The leading lowercase "s" on "ftruck" looks exactly like a modern "f", so that is what I have typed. The rest is exactly as in the original.

    Apparently the 18th century pronunciation stressed the second syllable. Also, it seem that it isn't truly an English phrase, but a borrowing from the French.

  13. Speaking of U and non-U, I remember being told that Pall Mall can only be pronounced "pawl mawl" if you're U enough to live there. For anyone lower on the scale, both words rhyme with "pal".

    PS - The long S doesn't look "exactly" like an f; it has no crossbar. You're just not reading enough old books.

  14. Wow, talk about late to the party.. There's a King's Mall in Hammersmith, West London that's been there at least 30 years, and a Princes Mall in Edinburgh too. Both, to my BrE ear, pronounced to rhyme with pal.

  15. Anonymous

    and a Princes Mall in Edinburgh too

    I live in Edinburgh, but it took me a minute or so to recognise what you were talking about. I think of is as the Waverly Station shopping centre. That's how American its official name is, for me.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)