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You Say Po-tay-to, I Say Po-tah-to

“Oh, just so you know– I googled the pronunciation of Nabokov today, and it isn’t NAB-uh-koff, it’s actually pronounced Na-BOE-koff.”


Tim was making the audio open and close to the new fiction book, Cleaning Nabokov’s House written by Leslie Daniels, read by Morgan Miller.  It began airing today, January 10th, at 11 am with a replay at 10 pm.  I was looking forward to hearing it until he broke this embarrassing news to me.

How could it be that I had been saying Vladimir Nabokov’s name wrong my whole life?  I was flabbergasted.  When we read LOLITA in my book group a few years ago, there were a lot of things we argued about (how can a book about a helpless child in the clutches of a pedophile possibly be humorous at times?) but one thing everyone took for granted was that the author’s name was Nab-uh-kov.  After all, didn’t  Sting say his name that way in the Police song “Don’t Stand So Close to Me”?  So later that evening I typed “Nabokov” into the search engine called HOW J SAY and asked the computerized fellow with the classy bored voice to please say Vladimir’s name, and he responded: “NAB-uh-koff…or Na-BOE-koff.”  So I guess Tim and I are both right.

This got me thinking about how many words there are in the English language that we encounter but are unsure about. We understand their meanings, we read them silently in our heads, but would be fearful to say them aloud in case we don’t pronounce them correctly.  I had a terrible experience with the word (are you ready?) BROBDINGNAGIAN.  This word comes from Gulliver’s Travels, and it refers to the people who were the opposite of the tiny Lilliputions. Unfortunately, I came across this word in the worst way imaginable–while I was reading the live Newspaper of the Air on WRBH.  It was in a Maureen Dowd editorial, it was hyphenated, and although I knew it meant “really big!” I had never once attempted to speak this word aloud.  I remember giving it a valiant try, stumbling and stuttering hopelessly over the five syllables, until I finally gave up and actually said, “In other words, really big!”  Not one of my best moments.  The other one was when I cheerfully said over the air, “Tiger Woods had a boogie and a double boogie yesterday…”  Yes, now I realize it was supposed to be “bogey.”  I know nothing about golf.  And from then on I decided to let my Newspaper of the Air reading partner do all the golf articles.  He really hates me during the Masters.

I haven’t been sole reader mispronouncing things on the air at WRBH.  Our volunteers are human, after all, and everyone makes mistakes, particularly if one isn’t familiar with the reading material.  When Gianni Versace was murdered, a volunteer read the article about his death saying his name “Gee-onni Ver-soss.”  She thought he was French.  When the book Stealing Athena was airing, an irate listener called to inform us that it is the G in “Elgin marbles” is hard.  This meant the way it had been said during the entire length of the book, “El-jin”, had been incorrect. We apologized profusely and created a mea culpa disclaimer that ran before every segment.

When doing the audition to become a reader, one of the words on the station’s pronunciation list is “John Boehner”.  Just about everyone knows how to say his name by now; after all, Mr. Boehner is in the news quite a bit.  It may be immature and infantile, but I’ll be darned if the staff doesn’t still get the giggles when we hear the occasional earnest auditioner say it the way it is spelled.

Now, dear readers, here’s a challenge for you–I’ll give a Hershey’s kiss to whoever comes into the station and pronounces J.M. Coetzee’s name correctly.  Happy Googling!


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