Every time Aina and I drive to or from Collingwood via Airport Road, a scenic drive through rolling countryside in the part of the world in which Schitt’s Creek is set, we pass through a hamlet named Avening. It takes less than a minute to go by – it has only five named streets plus the highway, which is formally County Road 42 at that point. The most salient thing in town is a smallish town hall with an early-twentieth-century-looking hand-lettered sign that reads “Avening Community Centre” (I don’t have a photo, as I’m always driving when we pass it, but you can see it on Google Street View). And the one thing I always wonder is “How is Avening supposed to be pronounced?”
It’s a reasonable question. Small towns often manage to have names that are pronounced differently from how you might expect. And in this particular case, it’s not even obvious whether you would say it like “evening” but with an a as in “rave,” or whether the A would be as in “hat” or as in “father.” And should you say the e or just skip it? For that matter, can we even be sure about where the stress goes? Could it be “avenging” without the g after the n, or “Aveeno” with an ing in place of the o?
You might wonder why this all matters. How likely are you ever to need to say the name? Not very, I suppose – unless you’re talking about something happening at the Avening Community Centre. But what happens at the Avening Community Centre?
That turns out to be a much easier and more rewarding question to answer. The Avening Community Centre, to quote its website, “has a bowling alley in the basement, a picture of the Queen on the wall behind the stage, a main hall clad from floor to ceiling in wood and a faithful following of fans who like to see great old halls used for the reason they were built.” What reason is that? Concerts, some of which by rather well-known acts. They just had two sold-out shows by the Canadian group Sloan, for instance, and other acts that have played there include Neko Case, Sarah Harmer, Basia Bulat, Joel Plaskett, and Hawksley Workman. (If you haven’t heard of any of them, that’s fine, but they’re well known among a certain segment of the populace.)
One thing that the hall doesn’t have on its website, however, is a pronunciation guide. It does have a phone number you can call, but when I called, I got neither recorded message nor live person. Well, fine. I’ll just look on Wikipedia.
When you look up Avening, Ontario, on Wikipedia, it redirects to the article on Creemore (the town of a bit more than 1000 people just northwest, a short drive by two roads or an even shorter paddle on the Mad River), an article that does not anywhere even include mention of Avening. (Try it on Google Maps and it also takes you to Creemore, even though Avening is clearly labelled to the southeast just out of the frame.) However, you can readily find out that Creemore, a name made famous by an eponymous beer made there of exactly the kind you would expect to find at concerts by Sloan, Basia Bulat, or Hawksley Workman, is from Irish Gaelic croí mór ‘big heart’, and it was coined by the founder of the village, Edward Webster, an Irish-born entrepreneur – it is not named after a place in Ireland or anywhere else.
Well, OK, then, who founded Avening and how did it get its name? With a little poking around, we can learn that it was founded in 1860 by Frederick C. Thornbury, who was born in Avening, England. (If his surname seems oddly familiar, as it may if you have spent time in this part of Ontario, it’s because Thornbury is a village on the shore of Georgian Bay, as far northwest of Collingwood as Avening is south-southeast. But it may have been named after a different Thornbury – for one thing, it was founded 30 years before Avening was.)
Aha! So is there a Wikipedia article on that Avening? There is; it’s a town of almost exactly the same size as Creemore, but much older and more English-looking. Does the article say how to pronounce it? It does not. How about if you look at the page in any of the other languages it exists in – Cebuano, Spanish, French, Ladin, Polish, Portuguese, or Swedish? Nope, none of them say, either.
But further poking around the interwebs comes up with some other resources. The Survey of English Place-Names tells us that it is probably formed on the same old suffix as many other English place names ending in -ing, a suffix referring to people who dwelt in a given place. And what place? In this case, it has been suggested “that the nameless stream which runs through the village might formerly have been called Avon (OE Afon from Brit *abonā ‘river’).” We can see that the oldest Old English citation for it is in the dative, Æfeningum, which would be from nominative Æfeningas (confirmed in Surnames as a Science  by Robert Ferguson).
This all confirms stress on the first syllable, and the Æ gives a hint that it might now be the same a as in, for instance, hat. But the only discussion of pronunciation on the site relates to a version of the name attested in 1697: “The last spelling Auning arises from the vocalisation of pre-consonantal -v – . . . but the pronunciation [ˈɔːniŋ] is not now heard.”
Oh, well, phew. That’s a relief. Because even if that were how it’s said in England, it wouldn’t be how it’s said in Ontario. (Compare the name Balliol, which as a college at Oxford is said like “bailey-all” but as a street in Toronto is said like “ball oil.”) But we keep looking. And at length we come to Lippincott’s Pronouncing Gazetteer (1856), which – once you look up how to read its pronunciation guides – gives the a in Avening as in father, not as in hat (and the e as reduced but still pronounced).
Which is not to say that’s how it’s said in Ontario. For that matter, it may well not be how it’s said in England these days either; they sometimes just up and change it. (A friend emailed me and said, “Many years ago, I visited my cousin in England. She lived in a town called Felpham (Felp-ham). Years later, I visited her again, and she then lived in Felpham (Fel-pham, yes, with an “f” sound). I asked and she shrugged. Just the way things happen, I surmised.”) So, in spite of concerted effort, we still don’t have a solid answer. But we’ve at least had a scenic and informative trip, haven’t we?
Speaking of which, though I’ve told you where Avening, Ontario, is – by the Mad River, just southeast of Creemore, on Airport Road about a 20 minutes out of Collingwood towards Toronto – I haven’t mentioned where Avening, England, is. It’s on a little stream which – as mentioned above – doesn’t have a name. (Oh, come on. I’m sure the people who live there call the stream something. British History Online calls it “the Avening stream.”) It is in that cute stretch of hills northeast of Bristol called the Cotswolds. It is in Gloucestershire, which is pronounced “glostersher” (or “glostasha” to Canadian ears when said in usual British English). And the nearest town of note, a bit under 20 km east, is Cirencester, which Lippincott tells us is to be said “sisseter,” although in our alternately literalist and obscurantist modern times it is typically pronounced either “siren sester” or “sister.” Which makes Avening seem like an easy walk.
And speaking of an easy walk, there’s one more thing I typically do when researching pronunciation: check YouTube videos. And guess what. Here is a resident of Avening, Gloucestershire, going for a walk, and you can hear how he says it:
Yes, he says like like “evening” but with the a as in “rave.” And he calls the stream “the mill stream.”
OK, but how about the one in Ontario? The first video I found is a guy driving through who says the a as in “hat,” but he also says some other place names differently from how I know people around there say them. So I kept going. And I found a recording of a Zoom meeting (embedding is disabled, so click the link) of the board for the Avening Community Centre. Just about the first thing the convener says is “Avening Hall Board.” And he says it… exactly the same way.
And with that, I wish you a good Avening.
I live in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, and we have two inner suburbs here called Collingwood and Thornbury. Thanks for the story about Avening!
Inhabitants and locals used to, and I imagine still do, call Cirencester not “Siren sesta”, not “Sister”, but just “Siren” — perhaps to avoid the Scylla and Charybdis that you offer.