Games With Names

There was a scene in this week’s episode of Mad Men in which Megan and Don couldn’t remember the name of a colleague’s wife. Seinfeld did the best take on this phenomenon, of course, when all Jerry could remember was that his girlfriend’s name rhymed with a female body part. (“Mulva?”) I found this amusing because I am terrible with names. I was at a party this past weekend, sat down next to a couple of guests, introduced myself to them, got their names, and promptly forgot them. This happens to me all the time. Sometimes a name will come to me, but often it doesn’t—and sometimes I come up with the wrong one and call somebody by a name that isn’t theirs.

(The reverse has happened to me, too. A friend of my wife’s family called me “Mark” for years. I never corrected her, partly because there’s not really a graceful way to do it, and partly because I wanted to see how long she’d keep doing it. We haven’t seen her in a very long time, but I bet I’m still Mark to her.)

Related phenomenon: mispronouncing the family name. When I was a kid, this happened a lot; it still happens now and then, and it annoys me more than people forgetting my name outright. It’s not like “Bartlett” is all that uncommon, or hard to figure out when you see it in print. But as a kid, I was called “Bartell,” “Bartelt,” which is what the family name used to be a couple of generations ago, and sometimes “Barrett,” which was the name of another family in town.

Because I hate it when my name is mispronounced, I hate to be the one who mispronounces somebody else’s. My first piece of advice to relocating radio people has always been to learn the local names, of families and surrounding towns, as soon as you get there, so you don’t mark yourself as an outsider any more than your unfamiliar voice on the radio is going to mark you as an outsider. Another rule: If you aren’t sure how to pronounce a name, decide how you’re going to say it before you say it, and then say it with finality, like you know what it is. Nothing makes you sound dumber than hesitating on a pronunciation and then trying a couple of different versions of it live on the air.

I have known a few people in radio who were incapable of pronouncing certain names. There was a guy on the staff of the college radio station for whom one of the Beatles was named Paul McCarthy. Even after he had been told repeatedly that it was “McCartney” goddammit, he continued to introduce records by “Paul McCarthy and Wings,” and we were licked. We let him go on that way because it was too exhausting otherwise. When I worked in Macomb, Illinois, home of Western Illinois University, the area’s largest employer and the town’s only reason to exist apart from a couple of grain elevators, we had a news guy who called it “YIU,” even after we tried to enlighten him otherwise.

(The guy had gotten off to an inauspicious start apart from the YIU thing. He did his first live newscast under the name “Cliff Hanger,” which was not his real name, and not a name he had told us he was going to use on the air. When I asked him what he thought he was doing in there, he smiled sheepishly and promised not to do it again. He did not get many more chances to do it again. It was maybe a month before he was shown the door.)

There’s no point to this post, really, and no ending, either. If you’d like to hear some plausibly related music, click here.

8 responses

  1. As a former Baskin-Robbins scoop wielder, I heard plenty of flavor name manglings: “Jamaica Almond Fudge” in lieu of Jamoca, “pitachio” for pistachio and the take-your-pick “PRAY-leens” vs. “PRAW-lines” interpretations.

    One customer from the Beaver State turned the tables on me: “It isn’t pronounced ‘ORE-uh-GONE’ blackberry, it’s ‘ORE-uh-gun.'” Lesson learned and permanently committed to memory. Now, if I could only remember people’s names longer than ten seconds… Nice to see I’m in good company.

    Remember how we used to laugh at Casey Kasem for saying “BACKman-Turner Overdrive” and “ABB-ba” instead of “AH-ba?” Shame on us!

  2. Pretty sure I called you “Jim Barrett” once in a post on the old blog. Rediscovered it while looking through the archives much later. Was properly shamed.

    If two pronunciations of something are plausible, I will inevitably choose the incorrect one. I have come to assume my first choice is always wrong, and it usually is.

    To tie this to current events, I persist in thinking of Levon Helm’s first name as “le-VON” even though Elton John tells me the name is pronounced “LEE-von.”
    For that matter, I can’t remember whether Richard Manuel’s last name is pronounced like “read the fucking manual,” or like the Spanish man-WELL. Pretty sure it’s the former but I’m sure I’ve mispronounced it as the latter at some point.

  3. I have a last name that continually leaves people scratching their heads – It’s Hradecky (RA-duh-key) – You wouldn’t believe the amount of manglings of that name I’ve heard in my life – My favorites are the grocery checkout clerks that are required to tear my receipt, read my name and say ‘Thank you Mr _________’ there’s always an ‘Uhhhhhhhhh’ there – I usually go easy on them and say ‘Greg’ – Also, when I die if you add up the amount of time I’ve had to say to people ‘No, it’s ‘H’, ‘R” and ‘The ‘H’ is silent’ I’ll bet it’s almost a full year – Enjoyed the post!

  4. jb, the best misprounciation was at our college radio station. The jock would pronounce Gino Vannelli as Gino Vannellini. CLASSIC!

    1. Could that have been the same jock (and let’s not mention any names) who referred to the REO Speedwagon album “You Can Tune a Piano But You Can’t Tune a Tuna Fish”?

  5. Two albums I mis-ID’d on the air for at least half a year: Hooverphonic’s Blue Wonder Power Milk (I read the third word as “Powder” until a casual glance set me straight) and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s B.R.M.C. (I’d invert the middle letters a la Tipper Gore’s 80s hobby).

    Thames (in this context, it rhymes handily with “names” and “games”) gets its share of mutations, most notably “Thomas”. Funnily enough, there was a Jeff Thomas at KPFT who preceded me on the air about 10 years ago. We’d get each other’s mail almost weekly. (And to make it even sillier, my current place of day-job employ is his FORMER place of day-job employ.)

  6. My name never gets butchered, though I am frequently – and why, I don’t know – called “Gary” instead of “Greg.” As to Minnesota stuff, one of the tests for new folks here is the town in the Twin Cities’ western burbs by the name of Wayzata. It’s pronounced “Why-zet-a,” but most newcomers go with “Whey-zet-a.” Similarly, they have trouble with “New Prague,” in which the second word is pronounced “Prayg,” not “Prog.”

  7. I have hundreds of stories about fellow jocks mispronouncing names. One of my favorites is the overnight guy who was forced to “fill in” for a tardy morning-show sports guy, and do a live sportscast. He referred to the Michigan football coach as “Bob Schmuckbueller”.


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