Last week, President Donald Trump had two mispronunciations go viral. While signing the Great American Outdoors Act, he said “Yosemite” as if the word has a silent “e.” Not learning from this mistake, Trump pronounced Thailand as “Thigh-land” at a campaign rally in Ohio. Was it a simple gaffe?
A common mistake
Stumbling on a word, especially when reading from a script, is a pretty easy fumble (though questionable for the “leader of the free world”). However, Trump isn’t the only politician to recently be careless with his words. Last month, during a Judiciary Committee hearing, Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Ariz., flubbed her colleague’s name not once, but twice.
After Lesko mispronounces Pramila Jayapal's name the first time, she butchers the pronunciation the second time and Jayapal was not having it.@RepJayapal: "Jayapal, if you're going to say my name, please say it right. It's Jayapal." pic.twitter.com/hiw0yEDbz6
— Erick Fernandez (@ErickFernandez) July 28, 2020
“Jayapal,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., said. “If you’re going to say my name, please say it right. It’s Jayapal.” (JYE-ah-paul, versus Lesko’s JAY-a-paul)
It can seem like a harmless mistake, laughable even (Thighland, really?). But the careless sloppiness paints a bigger picture; it sets a certain tone.
Let’s look back at Hasan Mihnaj’s viral clip from The Ellen Show. Just over a year ago, the comedian paused his interview with DeGeneres to clarify his name pronunciation. “I actually want to do this on national television,” he said. “The real way you pronounce it, and this is a big deal because my parents are here, it’s Has-en Min-haj.”
Names are meaningful
Mihnaj’s experience may have felt all too familiar for some. I know I have often been mistaken for HAL-lee, instead of HAY-lee (there are just too many variations and too much overlap of the two names). But as a white person with a very English surname, my experience is not the same as Mihnaj’s or Jayapal’s. Similar to the sentiment “I don’t see color,” not taking the time to correctly pronounce a person’s is disrespectful of a person’s identity. It’s feeling flabbergasted by the fact that you have to step out of your white-centered language comfort zone.
The above instances made me think of my best friend in middle school who would jump to tell a substitute teacher her English name as they made their way down the roster. She didn’t want the substitute to say her Vietnamese name out loud. I think of my numerous coworkers who went by nicknames, their middle name or a different name entirely so customers and colleagues could easily pronounce what was on their nametag. There was also the coworker who considered dropping a single letter to make his name sound more American.
Looking to the experts
There is a good chance you already know why pronouncing a name correctly matters. But if you’re looking to get a better understanding or share why it matters, Princeton professor Arvind Narayanan’s Twitter thread offers a personal explanation. Mita Mallick, a diversity and inclusion leader, describes her own life-long experience in an article for Fast Company. She captures the main point: “While my name was a source of pride, part of my identity, and represented my heritage, it was also a source of anxiety, embarrassment and shame.”
Thankfully, there is a simple solution. Mallick and Ruchika Tulshyan for Harvard Business Review give a list of ways to learn how to pronounce someone’s name, the main point being “just ask.” When asking, however, it is imperative to actively listen. It’s meaningless to ask if you don’t put in the effort.
Uzo Aduba put it best in her 2014 interview with The Improper Bostonian. She recalled her mom’s wisdom when complaining that nobody at school could pronounce her name: “If they can learn to say ‘Tchaikovsky’ and ‘Michelangelo’ and ‘Dostoyevsky,’ they can learn to say ‘Uzoamaka.’”