Talk Like a Texan: The Pronunciation of Bowie Knife, Jim Bowie, and David Bowie

A pronunciation investigation involving two Bowie men known for living large.

How do you, as a Texan, say the name Bowie? Does it rhyme with Louie, or snowy? Or do you say it differently depending on if you are talking about the Alamo hero, or the British rock star?

According to a dialect survey from Joshua Katz’s North Carolina State University, Texans are among the only Americans to still rhyme Bowie with gooey, though the portion of us who do appears to be shrinking as Ziggy Stardust’s fame eclipses that of Texas’s own James.

With Alamo season upon us, let’s take a look back at Jim Bowie, the knife he made famous, and how he inspired the name of a transcendent English rock star.

It’s safe to say that no blade is more acutely identified with Texas than the Bowie knife. James Bowie sported it on his hip dating back to his swashbuckling days as a land hustler in Arkansas and Louisiana, years before he came to Texas and cemented his national reputation through his death at the Alamo.

The origins of the Bowie knife, also known as an “Arkansas toothpick,” are obscure and hotly contested. But it is generally agreed that if Bowie did not invent it, he did make it famous, even if there’s a possibility that he didn’t even wield one in his sole experience in a knife fight.

That would be the Sandbar Fight in 1827, a sort of precursor in violent American lore to the Shootout at the O.K. Corral that occurred near Natchez, Mississippi. A pistol duel between two men devolved into a deadly no-holds-barred brawl on a tiny island in the Mississippi River. It involved about a dozen of the duelers’ partisans, two of whom were killed and two more of whom were badly wounded. Bowie was among the wounded, and in fact, his refusal to die in that fight was downright Rasputinesque. He was bonked once over the head with a heavy pistol, shot through a thigh and a lung, and stabbed at least seven times, but managed somehow to fatally stick one of his assailants with a long knife that his brother Rezin had given him for self-protection.

As colorful details of the fight traveled from papers in nearby Natchez to Philadelphia and New York to audiences overseas, the myth of Jim Bowie, knife-fighting frontier folk hero, was born. So was a new form of knife: the long-bladed, curve-pointed, double-edged knife equipped with a hand-protective cross-guard. Historians still debate who invented it—most claim it was Rezin Bowie, maybe supervising an anonymous blacksmith, or perhaps it was the work of an Arkansas smith named James Black. But as Bowie biographer William C. Davis says, its invention is immaterial, as is whether the knife he used in the Sandbar Fight actually looked like the type given his name. After that day, James Bowie was irrevocably tied to the Bowie knife.

After the brawl, the Bowie knife took on a life of its own. Those knives were something like the assault rifles of their times: popular and controversial. In an age when pistols were unreliable and hard to reload, it was the ideal weapon for close combat — portable, reliable, easy to use repetitively, and very lethal. It was a full-on craze accompanied by much bloodshed, and several Old South states banned them in the years after the fight.

According to the Texas State Historical Association, between the 1830s and the Civil War, Bowie knife-fighting dojos popped up all over the frontier, from Mississippi and Arkansas to Texas. The Red River Herald of Natchitoches, Louisiana, reported, “All the steel in [this] country it seemed was immediately converted into Bowie knives.” British steel companies recognized the opportunity and flooded the American market with knives, some of whose blades were etched with bloodthirsty, patriotic slogans like “Patriot’s Self Defender,” “Death to Abolition,” “Death to Traitors,” “Americans Never Surrender,” and, according to the Texas State Historical Association, even the purely sociopathic declaration “I’m A Real Ripper.” A Mississippi newspaper took inspiration from the craze by naming itself The Bowie Knife, with the motto, “You touch, and we pierce.”

Over a century later, similar words were spoken by an Englishman born David Robert Jones. “The name Bowie just appealed to me when I was younger,” David Bowie once said to William Burroughs, Beat Generation cult writer (and one-time Texan pot farmer). “I was into a kind of heavy philosophy thing when I was sixteen years old, and I wanted a truism about cutting through the lies and all that.”

Two years later, Bowie told People that he settled on the name because it was “the ultimate American knife,” and claimed that the persona it created in him was “the medium for a conglomerate of statements and illusions. I have no confidence in David Jones as a public figure.”

Bowie’s homage wasn’t the only Alamo fandom from across the pond. John Wayne’s 1960 film and Jim Bowie, a 1950s TV show, spurred an Alamo craze in early 1960s Britain. Phil Collins has a singular obsession with the place. The Rolling Stones draped themselves in Confederate and U.K. flags before it on a 1975 tour. Donovan, once billed as “the British Bob Dylan,” wrote a song called “Remember the Alamo” (in which he pronounces James Bowie’s name in the “snowy” manner). And, of course, there was Ozzy Osbourne’s fiasco of drunken stupidity.

When the singer adopted the Alamo fighter’s name, he pronounced it “Bow-ey,” to rhyme with “showy.” This is confusingly verified by the fact that he named his son Zowie Bowie, but pronounced that first name as “Zo” rather than “Zow-ee.”

Even so, half of England pronounced his stage name as if rhymed with “wow-ee.” It was enough to befuddle even David himself.

In 2000, a BBC interviewer asked him if he felt more like “Bowie [pronounced like ‘wow-ee’] or as David Jones, the boy from South London?”

“Less and less as Bowie [like ‘boh-ee’], Bowie [like ‘wow-ee’], Bowie [like ‘boo-ee’] – I don’t even know how to pronounce it any more, I’ve lost track,” he replied. “I always thought it was ‘boh-ee,’ I thought it’s a Scottish name, it must be ‘boh-ee,’ but no-one in Scotland pronounces it like that, they pronounce it ‘boo-ee’ I think.”

Indeed they do, as in the Scottish liqueur Drambuie. “Dram” means drink in Scottish Gaelic, and “Buie” (rhymes with gooey) is a variant on buidhe, the same root word that gives us the surname Bowie. According to company legend, the honeyed and herbed Scotch whiskey-based liqueur’s name means “the drink that satisfies,” so in that sense, with “dram” meaning drink, “buie” must mean satisfaction. According to the surname history for the name Bowie, that same root word means “fair-haired” (which describes both Bowies, James and David).

Today, there are scant similarities between the singer and the American folk hero, beyond a propensity to live large. (There is no evidence of a decade of cocaine use from James Bowie, but he was known to sample more than a dram or five at one sitting, and loved to gamble.) The Texan Bowie is viewed by some as an imperialist conqueror, and it is universally acknowledged that he was not just a slave-owner, but also a slave smuggler, a profession seen as distasteful even in the Antebellum South. That’s a far cry from David Bowie, bisexual and androgynous creator of anthems that resonated most strongly with theater kids (and theater kids at heart) on both sides of the Atlantic.

But there is one last big picture quality they had in common: they were both as edgy in their own way as the knife James gave his name to and from which David took his. That’s true no matter how you slice the name “Bowie”—which we Texans, who can now legally own Bowie knives again after last year’s House Bill 1935, pronounce right.

Read more in our Talk Like a Texan series here. And if you have a question about local parlance that you’d like explored, send us an email.