I now pronounce you… (Not a rant. More like a set of reflections on saying names.)

unintentionally painterly Amsterdam street scene.

You wouldn’t think my last name would pose difficulties of pronunciation. It’s fairly straightforward. Nothing in it is meant to sound any different than how it looks. And yet. Fairly often when I give a talk, the person tasked with introducing me will ask how to pronounce my name. It’s a reasonable thing to ask, since names can sometimes sound other than how they look. So I’ll say it’s Jill Stauffer (STAW fur). And then they’ll introduce me, like, minutes later, and they’ll say my name is Jill Stauffer (STOH fur). This happens over and over again. It confuses me.

It confuses me for multiple reasons. The first one is that there really is no way that the diphthong “au” (as used in English words such as autumn, jaunt and automobile) ends up sounding like “oh” very easily. If people instead introduced me as Jill Stauffer (STAUWfer [AUW like the ou in ouch]), I’d understand that because the name is german and that’s a germanic pronunciation. But people don’t tend to do that. They say I’m Jill STOH fur. Like frozen pizza Stouffer. And that’s just not my name. You can’t really look at the word Stauffer with any care and come away from it thinking it is pronounced STOH fur. And yet it happens all the time that people think that’s my name. Strange.

I don’t want you to think that I care all that much about this. I don’t tend to correct a mispronunciation unless it’s truly weird. Like one time someone tried to introduce me right before I gave an academic talk about my work as Jill Schaefer. That one just can’t be left alone. But if someone gets my vowels wrong, well, OK. It’s just strange how often it happens! Especially given that the most obvious pronunciation in english is not the one people choose. It even happens sometimes when good friends of mine, old friends of mine, introduce me to other people.

The second reason this confuses me is that someone has just asked me a number of minutes ago how to pronounce my name and I’ve said it’s STAW fur. And then they say STOW fur. Apparently the majority of people who introduce me to other people either at a party or before I give a talk are thinking in the back of their minds about the frozen entrée they wish they were eating instead of introducing me.

For a while when I was living in California and shopping at the big Safeway grocery store on the corner of Church and Market, there was clearly a rule that workers manning the checkout had to say “Thank you Mr (or Ms) — — — ” after each transaction. Let’s not go into the larger details about what was confusing about that store, because then we’d have to try to figure out how it came to pass that when they remodeled and then reopened there was a huge sign out front — a sign someone clearly ordered and then proudly hung — that said “RE-GRAND OPENING.” No, we’ll stick to discussing the practice of thanking customers by name.

This was a situation where no one ever got my name anywhere near right. But who cares, really, if they call me Schaefer or Singer or Strafer or Shawlfer (I’ve been called all of these things and more at that Safeway) — they’re just trying to do their jobs and they shouldn’t have to address me by name. What I couldn’t understand was why they insisted on calling me Mrs. Shawlfer. MRS. Shawlfer. In SAN FRANCISCO, where you’d think people might have just a bit more awareness than usual of the importance people place on their different subject positions. But still, I didn’t say annoying things like, “what, is my mom here?” because they’re just trying to do their jobs and are saddled with a dumb greeting rule.

Now, it must be said that some names are truly hard, especially names from a foreign language with different rules. My last name should not be included in that list (though my first name poses problems in most languages other than english). But in this short set of complaints about people mispronouncing names I have to add that it drives me crazy when someone giving a presentation or just talking in class about something we as a class have read spends no time trying to figure out how to pronounce the name of an author before saying it aloud in front of people. If you take a moment it is not that difficult to pronounce Chakravarti or Gobodo-Madikizela or Nietzsche or Xiaorong with a measure of confidence, even if it isn’t perfect. If you’re really not sure — perhaps you’re faced with your first Nguyen or you come up against a First Nations name like Delgamuukw — you might need to look up a pronouncation guide for another language. But the internet!

I recently taught an essay by a writer whose last name is Kasumagic. It’s Bosnian, so it is pronounced something like Kah soo ma GEETS. I knew the students would be confused by that so I discussed the name’s pronunciation and had us all say it out loud a few times together. And still, throughout the semester, whenever someone brought up that essay in class, the student in question would get really quiet saying the name and kind of half-ass it and hope we could just breeze past it. But it’s a person’s name. If you’re in the same room with someone whose name you are uncertain about, you can ask them how to pronounce it (and then listen to what they say, and remember it). In the context of our discussion of that person’s work in class, their name on paper is what we have of them. DO THE WORK. It’s not that hard.

That is my message as I walk off into the Amsterdam evening, sure to mispronounce my dear friend Wouter’s name multiple times (it is pronounced something like VOWter). Apparently there is a subtle difference between how the W is pronounced in Wouter’s name in Dutch and what I’m capable of hearing and saying. In fact, one time he said to me a sentence that sounded, to me, like this: “You call me Wouter but my name is Wouter!” My friend Sara said, kindly, on my behalf, “She can’t hear the difference.” So now I sometimes call him “Wouter not Wouter.”

Still, I insist it’s better that I call him VOWter imperfectly than if I called him WOOter or for some reason avoided saying his name or got all weirdly quiet every time it came out of my mouth. It’s his NAME.

Update: I wrote this in the afternoon before going out to meet Sara and Wouter for drinks and dinner, so, of course over dinner I told them about what I was writing. And the funny thing is, according to Wouter, I actually said his name correctly one or two times during the course of the evening. Turns out, there is a tender interval between the Dutch V and W that is all held in the V for American English. I still can’t tell the difference between them but who knows, maybe someday I will be able to!