January 29, 2014

"If you don’t know how to pronounce a word, say it loud! Why compound ignorance with inaudibility? Why run and hide?"

Wrote E.B. White, quoted in "A Pronouncing Dictionary of the Supreme Court of the United States" (PDF). The authors of that article went to a touching amount of trouble to get the correct pronunciation of the most-likely-to-be-mispronounced names of Supreme Court cases.
To be sure, this is an inexact process, not only because of the sheer passage of time, but also because some litigants may not have pronounced their own names in the way native speakers, or others, might deem correct. Where we have come across that information, we have followed the choice of the litigant. In some cases, pronunciations may even change during the course of litigation. Rumsfeld v. Padilla is an example. Two litigants with the same last name may also elect to pronounce it differently.
Here's the website collecting the pronunciations.
How much do you care about saying proper names correctly? A separate question, which you might find more interesting, is what constitutes correctness in the pronunciation of a proper name. Some people feel that it's acceptable to say it like it's spelled, at least until you hear otherwise. Another notion is that whoever's name it is controls the pronunciation, but when I hear that, I think of this Brian Regan thing — scroll to 4:14 and play to the end — about talking to a woman named Caroline. Can you say that? Very few can. Correctly.

ADDED: As for spelling and punctuation, from the first link:
We resisted the temptation to correct the Supreme Court’s erroneous spelling of M‘Culloch v. Maryland, 17 U.S. (4 Wheat.) 316 (1819), which should be M‘Culloh, MARK R. KILLENBECK, M’CULLOCH V. MARYLAND: SECURING A NATION 90 (2006) (noting variant spellings), nor have we addressed punctuation issues such as the “turned comma” (Unicode character U+02BB, see U+02BB: Modifiers Letter Turned Comma, CHARBASE, www.char base.com/02bb-unicode-modifier-letter-turned-comma), which has been dealt with definitively in Michael G. Collins, M‘Culloch and the Turned Comma, 12 GREEN BAG 2D 265 (2009). As for the pronunciation (/məәˈkʌləә/), we are indebted to Francis P. O’Neill, Reference Librarian, and Iris Bierlein, Special Collections Curator, Maryland Historical Society.

60 comments:

tim maguire said...

I'm in the camp of the person with the name gets to decide. If they choose something people struggle with and get wrong a lot, then so be it, they'll need to be tolerant of mistakes.

Until you know how it's pronounced, avoid silly accents, but otherwise just do your best.

nonapod said...

How do most people pronounce Chimera (the mythical beast)? I've always used a hard C rather than a "sh" sound and emphasize the "mer" as "meer".

Jules Aimé said...

If I remember correctly, White attributes the quote to Professor Strunk in the introduction to The Elements of Style.

Ann Althouse said...

Some words are so commonly mispronounced that you can confuse people by saying them correctly. Or you have to stop and talk about it and then you seem to be giving a lesson.

That said, I will be the last person to give up the correct pronunciation of "short-lived" and "long-lived."

And yet I can't bring myself to pronounce "err" correctly, though I note that Rush Limbaugh does (and so does Meade). I feel like: Come on, get off your high horse.

tim maguire said...

nonapod, I'm a fan of the podcast Lexicon Valley and I was recently listening to a discussion on mistakes in normal common words that can be made by educated people. Their example was "misled", which one of them thought until his 30's was pronounced "myzeld".

My own example is voila. I'm an editor, a pretty good one and reasonably successful, but I think I may have hit 40 before I found out that the written "voila" and the spoken "wallah" were the same word.

I knew they had the same meaning, and I knew I'd never heard voila (like viola, the musical instrument) spoken (except occasionally by me, oops!) or seen "wallah" written, but I really thought they were two different words.

Amexpat said...

If you don't know how to say a word, say it loud

Try that with Ptolemy to someone within spitting distance. Try that with Betsy Fuchs in mixed company.

Hagar said...

Some words are difficult for English speakers to pronounce, so yeah, just do the best you can and try not to make a production out of it. I.e., if you don't speak Spanish, just say Rio Grand in English and let it go. Don't try Rrrrio Grrrrandè.

And how do you explain how to pronounce Kirsten? (There is no "k"-sound.)

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

I remember being advised as a kid by Ranger Rick magazine to "reuse" paper bags, and being puzzled, because to me it looked as though it ought to be pronounced "roose."

nonapod, what you describe is how I always pronounced "chimera" -- sort of "ki-MEER-a." But that was just my guess. I gather that "SHIM-er-a" is a lot more common.

One that I have not sorted out: "banal." I learned it (somehow) as "buh-NAL," but I've heard "BANE-al" often enough that I'm now afraid to speak the word at all.

Tim maguire, wasn't it Debbie Wassermann Schultz who ran with "myzled" (for "misled") just a couple of weeks back?

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

Ann,

That said, I will be the last person to give up the correct pronunciation of "short-lived" and "long-lived."

I am assuming you favor the long "i," then. If so, I agree with you. "Short-lived" means "possessed of a short life," so the vowel is the vowel in the noun "life," not the vowel in the verb "live." Unfortunately, hardly anyone else agrees with us.

Hagar said...

and in alanguage where fish = ghoti you can't very well advise people to pronounce words the way they are spelled!

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

Ann,

And yet I can't bring myself to pronounce "err" correctly, though I note that Rush Limbaugh does (and so does Meade). I feel like: Come on, get off your high horse.

Here I honestly don't know which is "correct." I say "air," myself. Possibly because "to [air] is human" conveys what you mean, while "to [er] is human," while true (humans utter "er" all the time), might be misunderstood.

Hagar said...

In "chimera" I would think the ch would be the Italian ch, which, again, you probably should not try too hard to do.

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

Hagar, "ghoti" really is special pleading; is there any English word besides "women" in which an "o" sounds like a short "i"? But it's true: English has the most ridiculous relationship of supposedly phonemic spelling to actual phonemes of any human language. Of course, this is largely owing to its habit of swallowing other languages entire.

Hagar said...

err

err (ûr, er) verb, intransitive
erred, err·ing, errs

1.To make an error or a mistake.
2.To violate accepted moral standards; sin.
3.Archaic. To stray.


[Middle English erren, from Old French errer, from Latin errare, to wander.]

Usage Note: The pronunciation (ûr) for the word err is traditional, but the pronunciation (er) has gained ground in recent years, perhaps owing to influence from errant and error, and must now be regarded as an acceptable variant. The Usage Panel was split on the matter: 56 percent preferred (ûr), 34 percent preferred (er), and 10 percent accepted both pronunciations.

Excerpted from The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition Copyright © 1992 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Electronic version licensed from Lernout & Hauspie Speech Products N.V., further reproduction and distribution restricted in accordance with the Copyright Law of the United States. All rights reserved.

Hagar said...

The English (and Americans) also think "Y" is a consonant, which it is not.

Wilbur said...

I have a friend with the last name "Chimera". He pronounces it "ki-MEH-ra".

Patrick O said...

When I do presentations and don't know someone's name or some technical lingo, almost always because I know it in print not audibly, I youtube it.

Conceivably I may still mispronounce it, but I'd be doing so in popular way.

campy said...

OT, but "Chimera Inflater" is the best anagram I can get from my first & last names.

("Father in miracle" is a very close second.)

Dr Weevil said...

MDT:
Forty years ago in college, a teacher told us that 'banal' had always been pronounced 'buh-NAHL' until the '40s, and he thought the change to 'BAIN-uhl' was because it was the heyday of pop Freudianism so people started to rhyme 'banal' with 'anal'. I've made a point of pronouncing it 'buh-NAHL' ever since, and explained why to anyone who objected.

Mark said...

"I'm in the camp of the person with the name gets to decide."

Regarding names, I seem to recall a Monty Python sketch that goes something like: My name is U-z-b-e-k-i-s-t-a-n, but it's pronounced Smith.

Dr Weevil said...

In high school (early '70s) a new teacher who had taken French was very pleased to have a student named Charles Desjardins. Calling roll the first day, she pronounced it 'SHARL Day-zhar-DAN' (that's as close as I can get to the French pronunciation) and he said "Sorry, ma'am, it's 'Charley DESS-jard'ns'".

mgarbowski said...

No discussion of this may pass without a reference to this page which discusses the pronunciation of Daubert: www.daubertontheweb.com/Prolegomenon.htm

For the record, that page and the list page that Althouse links to agree, but many people prefer a more affected pronunciation, and the page linked here is more amusing, although only lawyers might truly think so.

Dr Weevil said...

Names ending in -bert are inherently ambiguous. I went to grad school with someone who thought Schubert (the composer) rhymed with Flaubert - and Pooh-Bear.

Hagar said...

A Schubert from Alsace-Lorraine might well agree with your friend.

lgv said...

Pronunciations change. Many Italian names, including many on that list, are no longer pronounced as in the original Italian. G's get pronounced, consonant combinations get altered. That's true of most names over time as they appear in America, including English words.

To this day I honestly do not know the correct pronunciation of my mother's name. I've heard many that I'm sure were wrong, but I was never quite sure about the correct version.

lgv said...

....and don't forget to enjoy your bruschetta.

jimbino said...

Juan Williams can't pronounce his first name correctly, and he's not 100% Anglo. No Anglo can pronounce "Don" followed by "Juan" or "Quixote" correctly.

I suspect that the family of "Schiavo" was dyslexic and worse, though it might have been the reporters who erred.

Saying "grimace" with accent on the first syllable sets me off, though that is small potatoes compared with the ubiquitous and erroneous hard leading-g of "gigs" as in "50 gigs of RAM." When a person says "gigabyte" or "gigahertz" with a hard leading-g, I comment, "Wow, that's gigantic," also with a hard leading-g. Few get the point. Back to the Future!

betamax3000 said...

Old SNL Skit with Nicolas Cage:

[ open on a married couple trying to think of a name for their unknown baby ]

Wife: I was thinking about Joseph.

Husband: [ turned off ] Joseph?

Wife: Yeah. Joseph.

Husband: Well.. it's a nice name, but the kids are gonna call him "Joe Blow". I mean, as long as you know that. Or "Sloppy Joe", you know.. "How are Mr. & Mrs. Schmo?"

Wife: Well, I guess that's true..

Husband: I mean, it's a nice name.

Wife: Well, that's alright. How about John? That's nice and simple.

Husband: What, are you serious?

Wife: Well, yeah.

Husband: John? You want to do that to the kid?

Wife: Do what?
Husband: [ mimicking ] "Hey, John! Hey, let's go to the john. Huh, John? Let's go!"

Wife: Well.. wouldn't he outgrow those jokes?

Husband: Look, kids are mean. I just want him to have a happy childhood, too.. but, "Long John Silver"? I mean, I don't know what to say!

------ a lot more follows along these lines, then ---------


Husband: [ answering the door ] Yes?

Telegram Deliverer: Hi, how you doing? I've got a telegram here for a Mr. & Mrs. Asswipe Johnson. I'm supposed to read it. [ holds telegram ] "Dear Asswipe & Emily: Congratulations on your upcoming blessed event. All our love, Bob & Diane." Here you go, Sir. [ hands him the telegram ]

Husband: Uh.. listen.. that's "Os-wee-pay".

Telegram Deliverer: [ confused ] What?

Husband: Uh.. forget it, forget it.. [ closes the door and sits next to his wife ]

Laslo Spatula said...

I get this all the time. It is 'Spah-TOO-Lay' not the kitchen implement. And it is "Laslo', not 'Lazlo'.

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

Dr. Weevil,

I used to know immediately when I had a call from a telemarketer, because they invariably pronounced "Dulak" as "dullock."

Mark,

Regarding names, I seem to recall a Monty Python sketch that goes something like: My name is U-z-b-e-k-i-s-t-a-n, but it's pronounced Smith.

No, it's spelt "Raymond Luxury Yacht," but it's pronounced "Throatwobbler Mangrove." Much more fun.

Cheryl said...

I think this is why I have a hard time reading and enjoying novels in languages that I can't pronounce. I really want to know the "right" way to pronounce the name and it gets in my way.

I just finished listening to the audio version of Metaxas' "Bonhoeffer" after trying to read it a couple of times. I don't speak German, and I found that having someone say all the proper nouns was really helpful.

The downside is that I can't actually look any of those names up because I have to guess at the spelling!

Cheryl said...

And then there was the little girl at the school my sister taught at. Her name was spelled S-H-I-T-H-E-A-D.

Her mother said it was pronounced "Shi-hay." True story.

The Godfather said...

There was a football player called E-Rich Barnes. His name was actually Erich, a name his mother had seen in a book and liked but had never heard pronounced. She and he pronounced it phonetically. In the case of a football player always pronounce his name anyway he wants.

sean said...

I don't agree with the approach of the website at all. I hold, with Fowler, that foreign words and names should be anglicized. Otherwise we would have to refer to seminal case of Pen-nwa-ay', instead of Pen-noi'-er. Some mild concessions to the original pronunciation can be made, such as pronouncing "bourgogne" as "bur-gon," but more than that is an annoying affectation.

sean said...

P.S. I feel like Prof. Althouse did the right thing, marrying a man who pronounces "err" correctly. My wife did the same.

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

I have a Chinese-American, male friend named Durwynne. His story of how he ended up with that name is that his parents found "Derwin" in a book of baby names, and liked it, except that they thought it was too short. So they ... elaborated it a bit. Thereby landing him with a name that looks feminine and vaguely Welsh. Unique, though: He has durwynne.com all to himself.

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

Is anyone else here afraid to pronounce the name "W.E.B. DuBois" for fear of getting it wrong? I'm pretty certain that his own pronunciation was "du-BOYZ," but it would be humiliating to mess that up.

jimbino said...

Most Amerikans seem to pronounce air, heir, are, e'er, ere, and err alike. And the Cockneys add hair. ["are" is the hundredth part of a hectare.]

Patrick O said...

My junior year of high school, a class had a guest teacher who was a historic fashion expert. At one point, she showed slides of Musketeer garb, not saying what it was. She said it was something the main character of the Three Musketeers would have worn and asked if anyone knew his name. I answered, quickly, D'Artagnan, saying it phonetically, because I had only read it. She sort of looked confused and sneered that I was wrong and said it was D'Artagnan, using the proper French pronunciation.

The funny thing is, and I know this is true, I was made to look stupid because I had only read the book. Meanwhile, she had clearly never read the book (as was made evident in various ways), but knew the right pronunciation.

That has been pretty regular experience throughout my journey through education. Which is why I comment on blogs rather than hang out chatting at bars.

Unknown said...

A few months before oral argument of a case, the Supreme Court sends the attorneys an appearance form that includes -- besides the usual information such as name, firm, and contact coordinates -- a request to explain how to pronounce the arguing attorney's name. For those of us whose names aren't pronounced in the intuitively obvious way, it's nice to have the Chief Justice summon you to the lectern while pronouncing your name properly.

Skyler said...

Just try and pronounce Daubert the way the man pronounced his own name and you'll get funny looks from other lawyers.

Kirk Parker said...

Re: the person whose name it is -- I know I've told this story before, very likely in this very forum, but bear with me:

A friend of my was teaching middle school English. On the first day of class, he's calling roll of the class roster. He gets to the end of the list, and doubles back to try again with those whose names aren't checked off.

"Lamonne?"

"Lamonne?"

"Lamonne?....."

"..."

"OK, now is there anybody who's name I didn't call?"

Young man raises his hand.

"And you are...?"

"LamonT".

"Lamont?"

"Yeah. L A M O N N E . . . . LamonT" [that last aspirated-t so strongly enunciated that he mists everybody in the row in front of him.]

Kirk Parker said...

jimbino,

Could you possibly be more pretentious? Not only does every single source I consulted say that hard-g pronunciation is the primary one (you lose on usage), but the Greek etymology favors that, too.

Run and hide, poseur!!!

Ann Althouse said...

"One that I have not sorted out: "banal." I learned it (somehow) as "buh-NAL," but I've heard "BANE-al" often enough that I'm now afraid to speak the word at all."

Well, that's another word where I won't adapt to the common mispronunciation. The correct form is BANE-uhl.

buh-NAHL is pretentious. You don't want to pronounce a word wrong in a way that is more pretentious than that correct form. That's the worst adaptation to the common practice.

jimbino said...

Reply to Kirk Parker:

"Could you possibly be more pretentious? Not only does every single source I consulted say that hard-g pronunciation is the primary one (you lose on usage), but the Greek etymology favors that, too."

Do you consider the Doc in Back to the Future "pretentious" for saying "gigahertz" with a soft leading-g?

And how, exactly, do you pronounce the related "Greek" word "gigantic"?

You must be a person who has not mastered Greek, Latin Hebrew or a host of other languages, including English--quite common in Amerika--and you should take pride in your quiet desperation, hiding among the masses.

Sharc said...

"Jay-Quellin? Where's Jay-Quellin at? Now, Ay-ay-ron?"

ken in sc said...

My high school band director said when sight reading music, if in doubt, play loud.

Foobarista said...

I'm all for Anglicizing names, since it's nearly impossible to get foreign names exactly right (have fun trying to get Minh-Ngoc Nguyen or Xi Jinping right, Oh Ye Newsreaders who learned a couple years ago that Chavez doesn't start with an "Sh" - unless you're talking about Eric.)

Just don't call my hometown of San Jose "San Joe-sey" :)

Kirk Parker said...

j*mb*no,

No, Doc is not pretentious because he's not lecturing us on the "right" pronunciation in defiance of both usage and history.

You are.

(My own BA is in Classics so yes, I've got plenty of experience with the Greek of the etymology; the modern language is irrelevant to that, fwiw.)

jimbino said...

So Kirk,

How do you pronounce "giant" and "gigantic"?

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

Oh, here's another: Hard or soft "g" at the beginning of "gigabyte"? I swear that I hear equal instances of both.

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

Ann, how does one pronounce "artisanal"? I had been doing the obvious ("art is anal," hehheh), but heard "ar-TEE-sanal" the other day, which probably makes more sense.

Kirk Parker said...

jimbino,

With the mainstream, as it turns out (same cohort with whom I share my pronunciation of 'gigabyte').

jimbino said...

Ya, dass ist was Himmler sagte: ich gehe gern mit dem Mainstream: Gigabyte!

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

I meant to point to this earlier, but during the Terri Schiavo case it was seriously difficult for me to read the surname as "shave-o," as the family pronounced it, and not "ski-ah-vo," as an Italian would pronounce it.

Kirk Parker said...

Great Ghu it's fun to tweak the prescriptivists, who think there's a Platonic language floating out there somewhere beyond what People Actually Say.

Foobarista said...

30 years in the db biz: gigabyte, not jigabyte.

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

Kirk Parker,

Great Ghu it's fun to tweak the prescriptivists, who think there's a Platonic language floating out there somewhere beyond what People Actually Say.

That's all well and good, but people are in fact judged on what they say and how they pronounce it in contexts where "getting it wrong" might make a considerable difference. Now I know, for example, that pronouncing "banal" with the accent on the second syllable would knock me down a peg or two in Ann's estimation. That it's the only pronunciation I heard for more than half my life doesn't even factor in here.

Kirk Parker said...

MDT,

Of course! But not because of some Platonic Ideal English that's out there somewhere, but because of ideas about what's ok within their particular speech [sub-]community.

rastajenk said...

jimbino said...
Saying "grimace" with accent on the first syllable sets me off, though that is small potatoes compared with the ubiquitous and erroneous hard leading-g of "gigs" as in "50 gigs of RAM." 1/29/14, 3:29 PM

Maybe because saying you have "50 jigs" sounds racist. Just sayin'.