Pedant Ethics And Name Autonomy

I have a dog in this hunt, in a way. I began my school career being lectured by the Catholic teachers of Arlington, Massachusetts that I was mistaken about my name being “Jack.” No, I was told, that’s just what your parents call you, dear. Your name is JOHN. There is no such name as “Jack.” Being ornery pretty much out of the womb, I refused to answer to “John” in class leading to several contentious meetings between my father (who was also named “Jack,” not “John”) and successive grade teachers. He always brought my birth certificate and a stern lecture about not making unwarranted presumptions that were none of their damn business, and I had to endure several weeks of dirty looks until my natural charm won over my teachers’ disdain.

As in the case of my teachers, the idiot who wrote Ms. Rea was both presumptuous and wrong. She had written,

Why thank you! Now shut the hell up!

Several Irish-speakers responded that they has learned that “Alva” was at least a common pronunciation  of “Ailbhe.” One tweeted,

In fact, it’s impossible for Ailbhe to be “wrong.” One cannot be wrong regarding the spelling or pronunciation of one’s own name. It is what its owner says it is. There are few things in life over which one has absolute, unchallenged dominion, but one’s own name is undoubtedly one of them. The height of pedantry and arrogance is to presume that you know better than the individual who calls himself or herself something what their “right” name is. I remember the New England Patriots once had a quarterback named Mike Taliaferro. He pronounced it “Tolliver.” Now, there is no way you can get “Tolliver” from “Taliaferro” using the standard rules of English or, for that matter, Italian. But nobody, even in that hotbed of pedantry that I called home for so long, dared to tell him that he didn’t know how to pronounce his own name. “Tolliver” he remained.

Of course, inexplicable name pronunciations are a thing in Massachusetts. Woburn is “Wooburn,” for some reason. Winchester is Winchester and Dorchester is Dorchester, but Worchester is “Wuster,” and Gloucester is “Gloster.” Quincy, Mass. is pronounced “Quinzy,” even though nobody calls the 6th President, a Massachusetts native, John Quinzy Adams. Just try going into one of those town and confronting a resident with, “Are you aware, you unschooled boob, that you are pronouncing the name of your community incorrectly?”

Challenging someone’s choice of how to pronounce his or her own name is an order of magnitude worse.

This is as good a time as any to recall a favorite passage from Louis Carroll’s  “Alice books on this topic, as Alice encounters the White Knight:

‘You are sad,’ the Knight said in an anxious tone: ‘let me sing you a song to comfort you.’

‘Is it very long?’ Alice asked, for she had heard a good deal of poetry that day.

‘It’s long,’ said the Knight, ‘but it’s very, very beautiful. Everybody that hears me sing it — either it brings the tears into their eyes, or else –‘

‘Or else what?’ said Alice, for the Knight had made a sudden pause.

‘Or else it doesn’t, you know. The name of the song is called “Haddocks’ Eyes“.’

‘Oh, that’s the name of the song, is it?’ Alice said, trying to feel interested.

‘No, you don’t understand,’ the Knight said, looking a little vexed. ‘That’s what the name is called. The name really is “The Aged Aged Man”.’

‘Then I ought to have said “That’s what the song is called”?’ Alice corrected herself.

‘No, you oughtn’t: that’s quite another thing! The song is called “Ways and Means“: but that’s only what it’s called, you know!’

‘Well, what is the song, then?’ said Alice, who was by this time completely bewildered.

‘I was coming to that,’ the Knight said. ‘The song really is “A-sitting On a Gate”: and the tune’s my own invention.’

You are who you decide you are. and what you choose to call the name you use to describe who you are is your choice, not to be challenged.



49 thoughts on “Pedant Ethics And Name Autonomy

  1. I also have a horse in the race, as it were. My daughter’s middle name is Marguerite. It is pronounced Marg-reet. I chose the name and pronunciation, my husband chose the spelling. How do I know how to spell and pronounce the name, you might ask? I named the kid! However, my mother-in-law, who insists on calling my children by their first and middle names at all times always says Mar-ger-reet. When I corrected her on her granddaughter’s name, she said, “well that’s not how it is pronounced, obviously. I mean, look at how you spelled it. You are wrong.” The woman has told me all of my children’s names are pronounced incorrectly, or are too weird to be real names, or are appropriating cultures that I have no right to and has done so since my first was born six years ago. The fact that I like Japanese and Russian names, and French names means nothing to her. I have to name them Greek, Irish, Scottish, English, German, or Norwegian names, because that is the heritage that we have, sort of. I hate it when people make assumptions about someone else’s name. But she would be the awful person who would tell you that your name really was John.

    I do sympathize with you Jack, and my sympathies go to anyone fighting over the name Ailbhe too.

  2. A person’s name is pronounced exactly as they say it’s pronounced. I’m not sure why that’s even in doubt. However, there is the occasional person who bristles at their name mispronounced by someone who only seen it in writing. If it’s unusual or cultural or translated from another language, give people a break who are struggle a bit with this.

    For a good laugh about names –

    BTW, Oklahoma is rife with these type of town names, “Achille” is pronounced “ach-a-lee”; “Soper” is pronounced “soaper”; “Miami” is pronounced “mi-am-uh”, “Chickasha” is “chick-a-shay.” Near me in Texas there’s “Sachse” which is “sack-see”.

  3. Glad you are up and at it.

    Several thoughts (in no particular order):

    1. With a column such as this, acknowledgement must, at least, be made of Monty Python’s Luxury Yacht skit. The punchline: his name is spelled “Luxury Yacht,” but is pronounced “Throatwobbler Mangrove.”

    2. Then, there is “ghoti,” which is pronounced “fish.” Of course, I always thought it was spelled “ghuti,” which is also pronounced “fish.”

    3. Taking French, I wanted to translate Jacques as “Jack,” but my teacher insisted that Jack was John, or Jean. That was before I understood the origins of the name, so I had no idea what she was trying to explain to me. I probably annoyed her with my repeated suggestion.

    4. I sort of have a dog in this fight, too. May last name has prove very difficult to pronounce. I have probably gotten at least 4 incorrect pronunciations thrown at me over the years. It does not bother me much, as it appears that people have difficulties with it, at first. It may not help that I share the last name of a pretty obnoxious TV personality; thankfully, he pronounces it wrong. But, where it really annoyed me was in college. We had a teacher’s assistant for class. She was Jewish and my pronunciation of my name was something she could not get right. My last name looks Jewish, or German, or Middle Eastern, depending on whom you ask. She got hung up on a Jewish-like pronunciation of my name. At one point, exasperated, she declared, “that’s just not right.” At the time, I was annoyed. Now, I am just amused.

    5. Our son, Jack, is specifically “Jack.” He is intentionally not named after his maternal grandfather, John, or his paternal grandmother, Jacqueline. He is just related to them.

    6. Came across Taliaferro myself, and it was pronounced, “Tollifer,” I believe. He was an early tutor at St. John’s College in the 30’s or 40’s who produced, I believe, the first English translation of Ptolemy’s Almagest and Apollonius’ work on conic sections. That’s the only way I ever heard it pronounced.


    • Jack has lately become a popular name, thanks to lots of fictional heroes, like Jack Ryan, Jack Dawson in “Titanic.” Jack Bauer in “24.” Jack McCoy on “Law and Order”…It’s a great name. I’ve always loved it.

      • Yeah, none of those examples really factored into MY decision, though I know it has gotten more popular because of that.

        But, my wife wanted a short name with no nicknames.

        We agreed on Jack; she could have just as easily gone with Rocco (seriously, that could have been a contender).


      • The only downside is that in school those who want to give you a hard time will call you Jackoff. I suppose that’s better than feminizing your name and calling you Jackie or Jacqueline though (that was popular when I was in school).

    • “ The Taliaferros (originally Tagliaferro, Italian pronunciation: [ˌtaʎʎaˈfɛrro], which means “ironcutter” in Italian) are one of the early families who settled in Virginia in the 17th century. They migrated from London, where an ancestor had served as a musician in the court of Queen Elizabeth I. The surname in that line is believed to trace back to Bartholomew Taliaferro, a native of Venice who settled in London and was made a denizen in 1562.

      “From the etymological point of view, the term tagliaferro indicates a soldier skilled in piercing the opponent or the shield of the adversary with his weapons, which cleave/slice medieval armor, such as with a stroke of ax or sword. In reality, these surnames may also derive from the medieval name Tagliaferro, that is, the Italianization of the French name Taillefer, made famous by the chivalric epic (the name Tagliaferro, on the other hand, is also mentioned in the eighteenth-century drama La Cecchina, by Niccolò Piccinni).”

      If I can help in any other way I am standing by . . . 🙂

  4. I don’t know, I think The Artist Formerly Known As Prince took this principle to its breaking point and beyond.

    • Well he did change it again afterward, making him The Artist Formerly Known As The Artist Formerly Known As Prince.


      P.S. For me, it’s mostly people wanting to use “Duane” and wanting to spell my last name as Zeckman. It’s usually no big deal except for that one year when I was elementary school and my official record had it misspelled like that. My parents had to come in to clear that up.

      P.P.S. It’s actually quite difficult to deliberately misspell your own name like I just did above. Try it. It took ME three tries.

  5. There’s a town in southern Utah called Hurricane, which the locals pronounce “Hurricun”. When I served in that area as a missionary, I heard, from several different sources, about a missionary who got up to speak at church, and as part of his talk said, “By the way, you’re pronouncing the name of this place wrong. It’s HurriCANE, not HurriCUN.”

    He was emergency-transferred the next day.

  6. Corrections for anyone who really wants to go to the Commonwealth of and not be hooted at: Woburn is Woobin. Medford is MEHfid. Arlington is AHLington. Winchester is “WinCHESTah” and Dorchester is DAHchestah, but Worchester is “WUSStah,” and Gloucester is “GLOSStah.” Winthrop is Wintrup. Revere is Rehveyah. Sumerville is SUHMahvel. Dedham is DEADum. Swampscott is Swampscutt. And so forth and so on. Mrs. OB is from Arlington and Saugus (SAWGgus) and I did a two year or so tour in the Greater Boston metroplex.

    So, trust me, I’ve been there. Literally and figuratively.

    But wait! There’s more! My college girl friend was from a town near Worcester. I reduced her family to gales of laughter by calling the major nearby town WARsesster. For more hilarity, she was named “Candace.” According to her, the correct pronunciation was “CANdahsee.” Dumb. She went by “Candy,” fortunately, until, I guess (after she dumped me) I think she may go by “Candahsee” professionally. More irony, her mother wanted it pronounced in Italian as “CahnDAHchay,” although she usually called her “Cand.” Maybe she’s come to her senses and goes by Candace as in Candice (Bergen)? Which always struck me as the logical solution if she wanted to sound grown up. Not that anyone ever asked me and I never offered any suggestions.

    Girls wanting to shed their girl names is very standard. Connie becomes Constance. Suzy becomes Susan. Cathy becomes Catherine. I’ve always admired women who stick to their girl names in adulthood. Switching always struck me as pretentious. I just don’t think a name that ends in ‘y’ has to diminish one’s gravitas. I did find it annoying when a couple of college friends (girls) decided, out of the blue, to call me Willie, but I never objected. Just part of the deal.

    • And Jack WAS a cool name when we were kids. The coolest kid in our grade school class was a Jack. Even cooler, it was short for Jackson, as in Stonewall Jackson.

    • I always thought the ‘y’ ending was to make it easier for friends to call from outside your house for you to come out, or for Mom to call for you to come in (yes, I grew up before cell phones).
      Try it for yourself. Gotta do it out loud and very loud to really understand. Just scream out “Hey, John-eeeeeeee” and then, “Hey, Jack”. That’s the power of Y.

      • That’s funny. You are right. I’d forgotten the dinnertime yell, almost a yodel. Of course, “dinner” has two syllables as well, which helped in announcing the reason your name was being broadcast.

    • I dropped my “girl name” in college, then picked it up again after 5 years in the workforce. I realized I was better served being a friendly, approachable “Tory” than a “Victoria”, though I still use my full name for creative pursuits. The problem is now people know me by two different names and I forget which one to use.

      • I salute you, Tory, or, er, Victoria. Hah! (Maybe you could try the French, Vick-TWAH!) I’m for “friendly and “approachable.” In the early ‘eighties, I think women in the workforce thought hostile and unapproachable was the way to go to establish themselves in guy-dominated professions (mine law, Mrs. OB’s IT). I just don’t think it worked very well for them. See, eg., Hillary Clinton. Mrs. OB put up with a LOT of crap from guys, but she prevailed without turning herself into a harpy.

        • Haha, I had a very strict stage director who called me “Victoire*” for some reason, so sadly I associate it with being yelled at for falling off the set once.

          I’m in a pretty gender-balanced field, but of course being approachable to other women is important too, maybe in my experience even more so. And strategically, it doesn’t hurt to be underestimated.

          See Smooch Reynolds for a woman Hilary’s age, at the top of a male dominated profession, who leaned into her name as a fun part of her brand. I don’t imagine it was easy to work in finance in the 70s and be called “Smooch.”

          *Victoria isn’t actually my name, it’s just a good analog for it

          • That sounds like a painful association. I had some negative reactions to my brief venture into college drama, mostly an annoyingly swishy director brought up from NYC, but no falls were involved. Cheers.

    • And then there’s Dedham, which is DEADuhm. But Ashburnham is AshburnHAM. And of course, Waltham is not WALLthum, it’s WalTHAM.

  7. AFAIK, the default pronunciation for “Taliaferro” is, and has long been (always?) “Toliver”. The “Toliver” spelling now used by some just came about as a later phonetic adaptation. Some people in Georgia (the state with the most counties [159], one of which is “Taliaferro”) know this.

    • My mother was a secretary for a doctor at the University of Chicago hospital and medical school. I knew of him only as “Doctor Tolliver.” Years later, I learned he was in fact “Doctor Taliaferro.” Fairly common name, totally the correct pronunciation.

      • Come to think of it, there was a guy in my college class whose name was, I think, Tafarro. I wonder if it wasn’t an Ellis Island-style contraction which obliterated the “Tolliver.”

    • Well, that’s to be expected from the folks who use “St. John” as a given name, and then pronounce it “Sinjin”.

  8. Yes, You get to choose how to pronounce your child’s name. But if you choose a name paired with a non traditional spelling, you’re going to take some shit. And, like the Monty python skit, the greater the variance, the more shit you will take. If you name your kid “chartreuse” and tell me it’s pronounced “Kyle” , I may look at you funny or even draw conclusions about your sanity.

    • See, eg., Elon Musk’s newest kid.

      I’ve just never thought your child’s name is a good place to break new ground. They are the ones who have to live with it, not you.

    • Supposedly, a couple in Sweden a few decades back tried to name their son “Brfxxccxxmnpcccclllmmnprxvclmnckssqlbb11116”, pronounced “Albin”. They were refused. They then tried to name him “A”, also pronounced “Albin”, and also refused. I’d say they’re either insane or abusive, or both. I’m afraid to investigate how the kid may have turned out.

      On a similar note, I wrote a whole essay on linguistic prescriptivism versus descriptivism, the gist of which was (or should have been) that people should abide by or break the rules insofar as doing either makes it easier for people to understand them. Ideally we should be moving language towards a state that makes easier to communicate, and I’m doing my part by identifying basic concepts that are often overlooked or confused, and assigning them words the closest-matching connotations I can find.

      Maybe I just care more about people understanding things than most, but I also put extra effort into coming up with good names for things.

        • (Her point is funny, but in reality, I’ve never known the name “Colin” to be typecast as the straight laced guy, nor “Chet” to be typecast as the rebel tough)

          Colin could swing both ways though typically to the rebel side and Chet, being short for Chester, doesn’t come close to being a rebel.

    • My opinion on this is that you are both right and mistaken. Now your example, Chartreuse pronounced Kyle is absolutely on the level. I agree wholeheartedly. However, my middle daughter has a common name with the traditional spelling. However, there are three other contemporary spellings and one archaic pronunciation. “Caitlin” is the name, for referenece. I am told, in a non-joking, supercillious manner, that it I didn’t want it pronounced either Coit-leen or Kathleen, I should have spelled it differently. People who aren’t related won’t even consider the traditional spelling and insist that her name must be spelled: Caitlyn, Katelyn, or Katelin. You can spell your children’s names how you want, and pronounce them how you want them pronounced, and demand the world do the same, as long as its within reason. There is nothing wrong, harmful, or crazy about having a specific name or spelling that means something to someone…again, within reason. What about Sarah and Sara? One is more traditional than the other, and either means a lifetime of people telling you that your name is spelled incorrectly. There are variations and family spellings that differ from expectations. Growing up with a Hebrew first name and a Greek last name taught me that you can correct people who make mistakes without getting mad, but when someone decides that your name is wrong because they are being pigheaded, is simply signature significance for a jerk.

      We need to remember that names come from several different cultures and if we truly are a melting pot society, not judge based on our own idea of what is appropriate. Then there are accents. Which is right? Wooster? Worchester? Worsesster? (Worcester) Louisiana? Loosiana? Wa-SHAW-key? WASH-uh-key? (Washakie)

      See Elon Musk and his kid’s name for what is entirely unreasonable.

      • I find local pronunciations for cities and towns kind of endearing. In New London, CT, the river that runs through it is not pronounced Tems, it’s the Thames. Then there’s Cairo, IL, vs. Cairo, Egypt.

  9. In Japan, names (and most words) are written in kanji, and there is zero expectation that a person knows how to pronounce a name just from seeing the kanji for it. However, Japanese also has two phonetic alphabets, and one of those is usually printed in small characters next to a name to show how it is pronounced. These small pronunciation aids are called furigana.

    In the process of double-checking myself, I just learned that the general term for these pronunciation aids, across all logographic languages (ones which use symbolic characters instead of phonetic ones), is “ruby characters” (after the font size used for them).

    I am prepared to accept people playing fast and loose with the Latin alphabet–using letters with no sounds, sounds with no letters, and letters with completely different sounds–if we start using ruby characters with the International Phonetic Alphabet so that I can always pronounce someone’s name correctly by reading it. (I’ll really do it, too. Orthoepy is important to me, especially when it comes to people’s names.)

  10. I understand names from other languages don’t follow the pronunciation rules we normally follow, it just annoys me when people try to give their children the most tortured spellings they can think of on purpose. As someone who tries to learn about 100 freshman names each year, it becomes very difficult to quickly learn the exception for each one of them. Lara P is Lara, Laura R is Laura, Pthaeadhohr is Theodore, etc.

    I understand sometimes you have to learn things by rote and forget about phonetics. If you don’t you won’t get your packzi.

  11. I wonder what your teacher would have told Frank Zappa’s and Penn Jillette’s kids what their names really were.

  12. In fact, it’s impossible for Ailbhe to be “wrong.” One cannot be wrong regarding the spelling or pronunciation of one’s own name. It is what its owner says it is. There are few things in life over which one has absolute, unchallenged dominion, but one’s own name is undoubtedly one of them.

    I think the nun was actually wrong. There is not a relationship between the name Jack and the name John:

    The name John is a theophoric name originating from the Hebrew name יוֹחָנָן (Yôḥānān), or in its longer form יְהוֹחָנָן (Yəhôḥānān), meaning “YHWH has been gracious”.

    She would have been more right if she’d have said your name is really Santiago!

    I assume that Jack is an anglicization of Jacques? Jacques comes from the Latin Jacobus which is said to come from the Hebrew Yaacov.

    Santiago is also derived from Yaacov (Sant Iago, Sant Yago, Santo Iago, or Santo Yago).

    It is Monday morning. There are idea-wars going on all over the place. A great vice is closing in around us. And this THIS is what I am given to fight over?!? 🙂

  13. OK, this is the best I could come up with on short notice: If one chooses a radically odd name, or one that obviously reads phonetically differently from how one *insists* it should be pronounced, it is likely that one is playing a power-game. If one has the *dominion* over one’s own name that you say, and indeed one does, one can insist that others bend to one’s will by being forced to “do what I say when my name is spoken”.

    I knew once a most annoying fellow whose name was ‘Georgzz’. You could not call him George but had to put the same emphasis on the *zzs* as he did. He also had the most absurd greeting on his cellphone that you had to listen to before leaving a message.

  14. I’m annoyed by the people who (after reading the name online, like FB) ask me about my daughter Mia by pronouncing it Maya. It baffles my mind when we’ve got an established spelling and plenty of famous people with these names and then common people can’t figure out which pronunciation to attribute to each variation. It’s enough to drive even Mister Mxyzptlk or Rumpelstiltskin crazy.

    • Comment of the Day. I’m serious. The first youtube/BBC COTD.

      Love Hugh Laurie NOT doing an American accent (at which he’s very good).

  15. Funny thing about names. In the neighborhood where I grew up there was a cross street named Wriothelesly Street. It’s pronounced “Rizley.” [Henry Wriothelesly was the Earl of Southampton, for which my hometoen was named.]

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