Spiro Agnew

Better Half was listening to a Radio 4 quiz show earlier in which a question was asked about former US vice president Agnew, whose first name, Spiro is from Greek.

"Spy-ro Agnew!" I shouted. "Who calls him Spy-ro Agnew?"

"I've only ever heard him called that," replied BH.

This isn't the first famous American's name I've heard mispronounced on these shores. Another is Edward Sapir, as in the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. In the UK, the last syllable of his name rhymes with ire and in the US it rhymes with ear and gets the main word stress. Whenever I lecture about him/the hypothesis, I preface it with "I know you've been hearing SAP-ire, but he was American, so I think he deserves the American pronunciation sap-EAR, don't you?" (He emigrated from Germany at age 5, so I think we can call him American.)

Now, of course, Americans pronounce names from other languages, including British English, in 'wrong' ways as well. There's a long discussion (with no real academic merit or answers!) about the difference between American and British pronunciations of Van Gogh at Yahoo answers. The residents of neither country should allow themselves to become smug about name pronunciation, as there are some that are "wrong" in both places.

The issue, to my mind, is respecting actual people by pronouncing their names the way they were intended. Granted, we have to work within the limits of our knowledge and pronunciation abilities--most non-English names I pronounce are a pale imitation of their bearer's pronunciation of them. If your native language doesn't have the sounds or the sound-combinations in another person's name, then you do the best you can. And if you've never heard a name pronounced (or only heard it pronounced incorrectly), you can't do anything but have a stab at it, relying on the spelling. So, though most Welsh people named Davies pronounce their names Davis, most Americans can't be expected to know about that.

But I do feel that I can give the BBC a little bit of a hard time over Spiro Agnew. News-broadcasting organi{s/z}ations create and use guides to pronunciations of names, and many dictionaries (including many on-line ones) provide the correct pronunciation. (One wonders whether and how Agnew appears in the BBC's list.) One problem, of course, is that the newsreader/presenter has to reali{s/z}e that the pronunciation they know might not be right before they'll have reason to look it up. The other problem, discussed well at Language Hat, is that such lists can be full of mistakes.

Let's end with a fairly unrelated anecdote from my days in South Africa. I phoned to order a pizza, and spoke with a speaker of (white) South African English.
Me: I'd like to order a small marguerita (AmE: cheese pizza) to collect (AmE: pick up).
Pizza Man: What's the name?
Me: Lynne.
PM: Sorry?
Me: Lynne.
PM: Could you say that again?
Me: Lynne.
PM: Really sorry, could you spell that?
Me: L-Y-N (I didn't see the point of confusing anyone with the -N-E)
PM: Ah! Lunn!

As I said, you do the best you can with the sounds you have.


  1. So how is Spy-ro pronounced? Spi-ro? Spee-ro?

    I worked for a South African woman who pronounced my name Ribikah! Always with the ! on the end, too. It startled me, I think.

    There's an interesting blog on the BBC news site belonging to the editors of the news programmes. They had a thing this week about pronunciation, especially of Hez-bu-LAH, which is of course on every newscast at the moment. It was interesting

  2. Spear-o (or Spee-ro, as you put it, but since we all know the word spear, I thought I'd use that).

    There's a toy (popular in my youth, probably not so much now)called Spirograph. That's pronounced Spy-ro in my AmE circles (and on the TV commercials, if I recall correctly). BUT, on cooldictionary.com, they have a voice simulator saying 'speerograph'. No information on the Hasbro website. How is it pronounced in BrE?

  3. I heard an interview with Ray Davies of the Kinks on NPR awhile ago. He was trying to explain to the interviewer the correct way to pronounce his name. He said it is like Davis but with more of a "z" sound at the end rather than an s.

  4. Wait! I misunderstood Rebecca's question.

    AmE pronunciation of Spiro (as in Agnew): /spi ro/
    ...which is to say that americans pronounce it as spear+o

    BrE pronunciation, which I was representing as spy-ro: /spaj ro/
    ...which is to say that the first syllable sounds like the word spy, which is what I was trying to communicate with the spelling spy-ro.

    I've been avoiding using International Phonetic Alphabet, as I don't want to discourage readers who don't know it, but I should probably include IPA anyhow, as the 'common sense' that I use in writing other descriptions of pronunciations is probably only sensical to me.

  5. The toy is called the 'Spy-ro-graph' in BrE :)

  6. Cabot Tower in Bristol is another. From John Cabot, in BrE it's Ca-boT in AmE it's Ca-bow.

    It's one of the French not french words like ca-fay and calf for cafe and fil-lay and fil-lit.

  7. Foreign names can be incredibly difficult to live with if no-one around you can pronounce them - or even attempts to try. I'm with you. It's a matterof respect for the person that you try and pronounce it how they'd like it said.

    In my family we have a standing joke rule that you're not allowed to marry anyone named John. I have 4 uncles and 3 cousins named John, plus my cousin Mary committed the unforgivable sin of marrying a John. (They're now going through a nasty divorce, partially, no doubt, brought on by the family's antipathy towards his name). Anyway, I slid in, narrowly avoiding family ire, by marrying the spanish version.

    The poor bloke has letters adressed to him spelt 'Won' 'Wan' and 'Wahn'. People read his name-tag and try to pronounce it 'Jew-ann'. But the worst was his recent sex-change via the [obviously well researched and edited] local paper who dubbed him 'Joan'.

  8. Anonymous...

    I'm not sure many Americans have any feelings about Cabot Tower in Bristol, but we definitely pronounced John Cabot with the T when we learn about him in school. I've never heard an American say ca-bow for his name. He wasn't French, so it wouldn't make a lot of sense to. Of course, it's possible that in more francophone parts of North America his name does get that pronunciation.

    Joan is also the Catalan form of John/Juan. So perhaps Allithekiwi's husband had a nationality change instead of a sex change?

  9. Joan is also the Catalan form of John/Juan. So perhaps Allithekiwi's husband had a nationality change instead of a sex change?

    A nice thought! Sadly, unlikely to be the case.

    (Apologies for spamming your blog, by the way)

  10. I heard that on the radio too. Reminds me of Melvin Bragg trying to convince his listeners that the proper pronunciation of Don Quixote was Don Quicks-ot. He said you don't pronounce Mexico with an "h" do you?

    Well, I replied to the radio, you do.

  11. I so agree that peoples' names ought to be pronounced as THEY wish. When I was a ten year old in Yorkshire, a new neighbour was a fierce five year old named by his Welsh parents as David (Day-vid). He was incandescent that his whole personality had been taken away by the English, and in tears of rage said to his playmates: I am not Day-vid, I am Daffid (Dav-id).

  12. Interesting. I just had a look at Australia's "official" dictionary for Quixote and I got the following as first choice:

    (say 'kwiksuht)

    Here in Western Australia, we have a town called Derby -- and we pronounce it that way, not "Darby".

    We also pronounce the name "Cecil" as "Sess-'l", not "Seessil".

  13. I spent my whole life in love with Ray DAVE-eez of the Kinks, when living in the US. How incredible that suddenly I have to change the pronounciation! I never heard ANYBODY in the US say that surname properly.

    But NOW some of them do...thanks to their friend Janet, who now lives in the UK!



  14. On "Don Quixote":

    KathyF is right.
    Spanish "x" as that time sounded like modern "j", which has the sound of english "h" (perhaps stronger).

    Actually, in spanish the usual spelling is "Don Quijote", don't remember "Don Quixote" anywhere.

  15. Perhaps poor Don Quixote gets an even rougher ride on the continent (European continent) for in Germany it is pronounced "kee-SHOTE".

    Makes me think of the AmE humorous rendition of "danke schoen" as "donkey shorts". :¬)

  16. One does what one can with the sounds one has. AmE has a perfectly respectable and widely (more than in BrE) used /a/ sound. What beats me is why they don't use is in Italian latte but, instead, say /lɑtei/. One would be forgiven for thinking, BTW, that latte meant milk — you know, all the other stuff about lactation and lactic acid. But no. It's a type of coffee.

    I had an argument with an African acquaintance called Mr Ngakane about how English-speakers might pronounce words like his name which began with /ŋ/. I can just about do it but my point was that normal (!) speakers would be better off using /j/ which is the closest English-language sound. As it was, they, untutored by me, used the rather uncomfortable-making /nagə/

    At Leeds-university in the 1970s there was a Mr Woodhead in the linguistics-department who, annually, would give a very witty talk and demonstration of click-consonants. He would amusingly imply that, the rest of the year, he was kept in a cupboard and only "wheeled out" (his term) every year to amuse the second-year English-language students with his Zulu voiceless affricated velar plosives. It came as something of a pleasant surprise to undergraduates in a long-term emotional relationship to discover that they had been practising bilabial ingressives in the back-row of the cinema without even knowing it. The question is, which closest sound in English does one choose to do for clicks? /k/ or /t/ suppose, but how boring,

    Suddenly bursting, mid-sentence, into a foreign pronunciation of just one or two words, only to lapse back into one's estuaryese can disturb one's audience and, even, in my case, sometimes wake them. Imagine you're pontificating one night at a bus-shelter in Poplar about French politics and decide, perhaps a paragraph ahead of time, that you're going to have a shot at an authentic rendition (without a safety-net) of Ségolène Royal. You're all limbering-up for the delicious /ʁ/ at the start of her surname yet, when you do it, people think you've been slightly sick and offer a tissue. Try an authentic Dutch pronunciation and they give you a cough-sweet, German and they back off, Italian and they think you're drunk.

    No, best to stick to English's reliable old set of some 40 phonemes and, while you're about it, really relish the final /s/ or (better still) /z/ in the well-established Parisss, Marseillezzz and Lyonzzz.

    This brings me to the time-honoured British tradition of Irritating the French, which includes scrupulously pronouncing otherwise silent terminal letters. Dijon mustard must be /di'ʒɔn/ (where getting the stress wrong really rubs it in). If a gentleman is a doyen, be sure to describe him as a doyenne. The first elements of en suite and en route are an absolute gift, and none can forget the exquisite habit of Mr John Major, former British prime minister, of pronouncing the French president's surname as though it was something you put under a car to change a flat tyre.

    Of course, such phonemic warfare is waged in the opposite direction. Across the Fifth Republic and her former dominions, schoolchildren are, according to the Napoleonic timetable, drilled in ensuring that their pronunciation beat and bit are identical. This is unfortunate if, like one TV-chef I heard, you end up telling people to put items for cooking into the oven on what sounded un-nervingly like a baking-shit.

  17. The current governor of Illinois spells his name 'Blagojevich'. He pronounces it, approximately, "blah-GOY-yuh-vitch" (sorry, not fluent in phonetic marks). His ancestors were presumably immigrants from somewhere or another ... but the pronunciation has now thoroughly Americanized.

    So it was disturbing and funny to me to hear the BBC World News refer to him as 'Governor blago-YAY-vitch'.

    I realized some time ago that a good rule of thumb to offer my recent immigrant friends on 'how to prounounce odd words in American placenames' involves (a) putting the heaviest emphasis on the second syllable (if it has more than two -- if it has two, accent the first), and (b) schwaing all but the most accented vowels. It doesn't work every time, but at least it'll get you close enough that people will know what you're talking about.

    That got me in trouble on 'Sepulveda Boulevard', though. :->

  18. I would just like to add tha Blagojevich`s ancestors came from Serbia, where his name would be spelled Blagojević and pronounced something like BLUH-go-yeh-vich, the vowel in the second syllable being something like the English would use in words lie God, Bob, shot etc.(lynneguist mentioned it in some of her previous posts)

  19. @ Paul Danon

    Suddenly bursting, mid-sentence, into a foreign pronunciation of just one or two words, only to lapse back into one's estuaryese can disturb one's audience and, even, in my case, sometimes wake them.

    I have fond memories of watching one of a series of documentaries about the Silk Road on TV in Singapore in the mid-1980s. The programme was made in Japan and had been locally dubbed into impeccably pronounced RP, except that all the Chinese place names (of which there was at least one per sentence, often two or three) were pronounced in what for all I know was equally impeccable Mandarin, complete with the tones. That does ... disturbing ... things to an English sentence.

  20. My husband (UK) insists on our surname being pronounced "properly" as Day-veez. "It's got the E in it, it's Day-veez, not Day-viss."

    As a bonus, if you say Day-veez, most people manage to spell it right.

  21. My year in England: I'd say in General American, "My name is Ann," and teacher would write down "Ian" and say, "What an unusual name for a girl." Rather than full mimic, I started saying what to me sounded like, "My name is On."

    Back in the US, many years later, I met a Mancunian named Ian. He laughed when I introduced myself--people here think his name is Ann (and what an unusual name for a man...).

  22. I had a similar problem to Ann when I was in the UK. People simply would not understand me when I said Grant because I use the American /ae/ (low front) and not the Scottish /a/ (low central). But I could not get myself to say my name in a way that sounded incorrect to me, even though I knew it would sound right to everyone else (it is a Scottish name after all).

    Sometimes you just have to go with the incorrectness though. Many Californian placenames that have relatively 'correct' English versions available are hopelessly butchered by people who live in the area, and you're the one who sounds wrong if you say them correctly. ("San Rafel" for San Rafael is my least favorite. Ugh.)

  23. @Allie:
    Have you read Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love? Poor Juan gets his name massacred...

  24. Seriously? Sapir pronounced SAP-ire, like sapphire?? I can't think of any other word in which -ir would be pronounced as if written -ire. Are you sure this is general in the UK? This UKian never heard it pronounced like that. I think I may have heard SAY-peer though, and I see that's listed in J C Well's Longman Pronunciation Dict as an alternative pron.

  25. Sorry, I meant *JC Wells's* LPD of course. (Very annoying that you can't correct posts once they've appeared. I know, be more careful.)

  26. @Harry Campbell: Names are often exempt from general pronunciation patterns, though. I have definitely heard a fair amount of the rhymes-with-Sapphire pronunciation, and considered this to be kind of like people pronouncing 'Levin' as LevINE (like 'ravine') where I (and most AmE speakers, I'd think) would pronounce it as LEVin (rhymes with Kevin). Pronunciations of Levin listed here, but unfortunately that source doesn't have Sapir.

  27. @lynneguist Fair enough, I just find that very surprising and wondered if it might be someone's personal or local idiosyncasy. Shame it's so much harder to get a quick straw poll when it comes to phonetics, as you could by googling for, say, spelling alternatives!

    Sapir is a rather strange-looking name to anglophone eyes, which might prompt some random attempts. I wonder what UK pronunciations you've heard of the Mediterranean Lingua Franca known as Sabir. I suppose the name Samir is relatively familir in Britain, and of course Yitzhak Shamir, and I can't imagine anyone pronouncing that "S(H)AMire".

    PS Thanks for a very useful-looking link.

  28. @Alexis:

    Most English people actually pronounce ANN as [æn] -- i.e. with the exact same vowel phonetically as in TRAP.

    No American I have ever heard does this. The vowel is always nasalized and raised: something like [ẽən]. To British ears, this is probably the single most distinctive feature of a US acent.

    With respect, I very much doubt that your GRANT was actually [grænt] -- that would rhyme with English English "RANT".

  29. I've heard Sapir's first syllable as both /sap/ and /sεip/. A few years ago I went to a lecture by Professor William Labov and, while the British there were calling him /lə'bɔv/, the Americans called him /lə'bəuv/. The study of how you pronounce language-experts' names is called linguististics. The South African (and New Zealand) phenomenon of changing all vowels to schwa is known as lenition.

  30. @Paul Danon:

    FWIW: Wikipedia gives the pronunciation of "Sapir" as /səˈpɪər/, rhyming with "appear". No source is given.

  31. Thanks, vp. Interesting that both of Lynne's pronunciations are with an A in the first syllable, whether or not stressed.

    Linguististics. Geddit??!!

  32. I've always reckoned that if I were fortunate enough to visit the UK that I would be inwardly wincing whenever a British citizen pronounced my last name of Lancaster.
    For a few hundred years, my family has pronounced it so that it rhymes with the phrase fan faster. However, I am aware that the British version is LANKester. While I wouldn't answer to that in the US (or would correct the speaker) in the UK I would (with a smile even) just out of sheer politeness.

  33. I especially like the South African story as I had a few of them this kind there too ; )

  34. Knew a guy from Minneapolis named Spiro Spero (Greek). As with spirograph or Mr. Agnew, I've always pronounced all of them with unstressed /I/ "spiro" (rhymes with spit or spill?) I love the pseudo-Greek wrap with lamb/beef meat with sauce, tomato, onion, all in a monster wrap. Pronounced either /yeeros/ or /Jai-row/ around here (Iowa). Latter makes me cringe, but why not? Gyros are good, either way.

  35. I realize this is an old post, but I'd like to comment on Sapir. The name is probably a transliteration of the Hebrew word for sapphire. In Hebrew it is in fact pronounced with the emphasis on the second syllable, which rhymes with "spear." This does not prove that this is how Sapir himself pronounced it, but it is certainly plausible if his family retained the pronunciation of the original form of the name. Sapir's name may actually be the same as William Safire's, which was apparently originally Safir. In Hebrew, the same letter is used for the p and the f sound, though one has a dot in it and the other does not.

  36. Perhaps I spoke too quickly. I just did a bit of a search online, and I read that both Sapir and Safire are variants of the name Shapiro. No idea if that is true, but I guess it may be.

  37. BrE. I don’t get the problem with pronouncing Spirograph: it’s for making spirals. Unless anyone out there talks about speerals.


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