Illustration by Ben Hillyer / The Natchez Democrat

Not from here are you? Foundation helps answer age-old Natchez question

Published 12:01am Sunday, January 13, 2013

In a town that often plays host to outsiders, outsiders often blend into the surroundings.

In World War II, one of the ways spies on both sides of the conflict were captured was by watching how they handled their dinnerware.

Locally, however, outsiders — most of whom aren’t spies — are more apt to give themselves away when they open their mouths. Not by their regional or national accents, necessarily, but with one word — “Natchez.”

Locals, as well as transplants established in the area, have long used a simple aphorism as a key to the correct pronunciation.

“It’s Natchez, rhymes with matches, with an ‘n’ instead of an ‘m” and a ‘z’ instead of an ‘s,’” said Mimi Miller, director of the Historic Natchez Foundation. “I couldn’t tell you how many times I have said that.”

Now, the HNF is trying to make that memory key a little easier to remember, and has available for the public boxes of “Natchez Matchez.”

Julie Ferry Hale, the granddaughter of the former owners of Melrose, donated the matchboxes to the HNF, Miller said.

Friends originally gave 70 boxes of the matches to Hale as a birthday gift — Hale’s love of Natchez was well known to her friends — and Hale in turn donated the matches to the HNF for a potential fundraiser, Miller said.

Initial response to the Natchez Matchez has been enthusiastic.

“We are ordering more of them because people have enjoyed them so much,” Miller said.

As a long-time worker with the international Road Scholar and Elderhostel program, Carolyn Vance Smith has brought thousands of people hailing from Central America, Australia, Canada and around the United States to Natchez.

The most common mispronunciations Smith has heard were akin to “Na-cheese” or “Na-chezz,” with the emphasis placed on the second syllable of the word.

“It is surprising those who have heard of Natchez from Canada and even Europe, but they can’t spell it,” Smith said.

And every once in a while, someone makes an assumption about how the word should sound that comes out downright silly.

“I had a friend who was appalled because she heard somebody who was rather a know-it-all on a trip saying, “Oh, you are from ‘Na-shay,’” Smith said. “When she heard this person who thought they were so smart say ‘Na-shay,’ she had to laugh.”

As the president of Auburn Antebellum Home, Clark Feiser, himself a transplant who by his own account always pronounced the name of the city correctly, often interacts with people from the outside. Most folks who come through do know how to pronounce the city’s name correctly, he said, though he has in the past had a curious person ask about it.

But one does not have to be from too far away to still be in the dark about how to properly form the word into sound.

“A lot of the tourists that come down know how to say ‘Natchez’ correctly, but our former pastor — even though she was from Mississippi, from the Jackson area — she still pronounced it wrong,” Feiser said.

But regardless of how you pronounce it, you’re probably saying it wrong, at least according to the people from whom the name came.

The current pronunciation apparently morphed through the years as Anglophones occupied the area that was previously occupied by the French.

“The –chez portion of Natchez was kind of a Frenchized version on paper of what the French people were hearing when they encountered the Natchez Indians,” said Jim Barnett, director of the Grand Village of the Natchez Indians.

“The Natchez people who are in Oklahoma pronounce it ‘Notchy.’”

But regardless of historic or outlier pronunciation, the “matches”-sounding version on Natchez is here to stay.

And both Smith and Miller suggested that, if one does not wish to speak of matches, they can always use the famous Ogden Nash limerick about an unfortunate local girl:

“There was a young belle of Natchez

Whose garments were always in patchez.

When comment arose

On the state of her clothes,

She drawled, When Ah itchez, Ah scratchez!”