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C'est What? An Introduction to Say How?

February 2011

Say How? was born at the Library of Congress Talking Books for the Blind Recording Studio, where pronunciation of words and names borders on obsession. We found that one area was conspicuously missing from all of our many dictionaries and pronunciation guides: names of lesser known and contemporary public figures. Reference works tend to favor the famous and the dead. So at our Studio we began compiling a file of 3 x 5" cards with names of people prominent and obscure, past and present, in the fields of entertainment, politics, sports, literature, science, finance, media, crime, fashion, medicine, law - anyone, in short, whose name could possibly turn up in a book. (Even relatives got included - David Niven's wife, Beverly Sills' husband, Fred Astaire's daughter, etc. - because they get written about, too.) After filling up five shoeboxes with index cards, computers got invented and we were finally able to computerize the list and distribute it in print form to other Library of Congress Talking Book Studios throughout the country, and eventually here online.

And speaking of additions and corrections, dictionaries customarily are compiled, published, and set in stone, mistakes and all. Say How? is meant to be an ongoing project, with errors corrected and new names added regularly. In fact, we eagerly solicit any and all contributions and corrections. Please send all such information to: hagenray@earthlink.net.

Our sources are many; publishers and authors, print references, foreign embassies, archival film, radio airchecks, personal acquaintance, etc. Endless media monitoring has proved invaluable. And yes, some sources are more trustworthy than others. Attention must be paid. But the major source, whenever available, must be the person him/herself. For instance, the surname Moreno is commonly said as either mor-EEN-o or mor-AIN-o, but Rita Moreno pronounces her name mor-ENN-o. And despite the spelling, Brett Favre says his name is pronounced FARV. So FARV it is, and mor-ENN-o it is, and that's that.

Common usage, a useful standard with conversational speech, becomes less useful when applied to people's names. Most people pronounce Chico Marx's first name as CHEEK-o, but Groucho always said CHICK-o. Most people say DEZZ-ie Arnaz, but Lucille Ball always said DESS-ie. I'll go with Groucho and Lucy. Do you say EEL-ya Kazan? Many do, but Elia says ee-LEE-ya. And Louis Armstrong has gone on record as preferring to be called Louis, so no matter how many millions call him Louie, it's Louis here.

In some instances (Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Dashiell Hammett, etc.) they themselves have changed the original family pronunciation of their first or last names. Although it was originally CHEE-nee and KAHL-in and da-SHEEL, over time the names pretty much morphed into their current pronunciations and they’ve gone along with the changes. In these cases, their own common usage trumps family history, at least for the purposes of this list.

In general, our concentration has been on how the names should be said by and for English speakers, but that gets pretty elastic. German-born Marlene Dietrich's surname is given as DEE-trick, the Americanized pronunciation, because her major career was established and maintained in America. The name of her early German co-star, Emil Jannings, is given here as AIM-il YAHN-ings because his career was exclusively in Germany. French actress Michelle Morgan's name is listed as the French mor-GAN because although she made a few minor American films, her primary reputation is as a French star. In a few cases, where the person was equally prominent here and abroad, the foreign and American pronunciations are both given. It's handy to have one solid set of rules to go by, but that's just not possible with people's names.

In print, a name must be spelled correctly. This is the oral/aural equivalent.

Ray Hagen, Compiler of Say How?


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Posted on 2014-09-05