What’s in a name?

By Joe Diorio

One of my favorite stand-up comedy bits by the late George Carlin is when he discusses how someone spells and pronounces their name. “Your name could be spelled, S-M-I-T-H,” Carlin says, “but because it is YOUR name you can say it is pronounced Jenofsky.”

OK, it’s funnier when Carlin does the delivery, but the point holds. Our names are personal and play a big role in how we self-identify.

Journalism schools take the business of getting one’s name right seriously. “[M]y students understand that no matter how brilliant their reporting and writing, if they messed up a name, they got an automatic F on that assignment,” says Kathy English, public editor for the Toronto Star and a journalism instructor at Ryerson University.

With that as background, it is surprising to see major news organizations using different spellings of Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine. CNN, The New York Times, The Washington Post use the single “y” spelling for Zelensky, while Fox News, the Associated Press and MSNBC go with a double “y” (Zelenskyy). Meanwhile, Reuters goes completely off track by spelling his last name “Zelenskiy.”

Did they all fail Professor English’s class?

No, but there is a problem when translating something from the Cyrillic alphabet to English. There is no easy way to translate Zelensky’s name to English from its Cyrillic letters, hence the variety of spellings. 

When translating the title of this newsletter to Cyrillic, the name “A Few Words About Words” (above) becomes unrecognizable to anyone not familiar with the language.

CNN reports that Zelenskyy uses the double “y” spelling. At least he did so on his passport in 2019.

Scholars point out that confusion when translating names from Cyrillic to English is the rule rather than the exception. There also is speculation that the double “y” spelling is President Zelenskyy’s way of showing defiance to Russia.

Festivus observations – the gift that keeps on giving

Mention there are words and phrases that make one’s skin crawl and a tsunami of similar complaints land in the email “in” box.

“After years of complaining about my husband saying, ‘in any way, shape, or form’ he has stopped and now I say it! I started as a joke, and now it’s a habit,” one reader says.

Merriam-Webster does recognize “in any way, shape, or form” as legitimate language, meaning an action or other activity that is unacceptable.

This reader goes on to mention she has picked up the terminology “might could,” which she correctly defines as a shortened version of “might be able to.” The term “might could” is a regional idiom. Although grammatically incorrect and redundant, the actual correct phrase would be something to the effect of, “I am not sure, but I might be willing (or able) to do it later” is verbose and sounds just as awkward. You might could just stick with the idiom.

Reminder: AFWAW will be an online blog come June This is a reminder from your friendly neighborhood word nerd that A Few Words About Words will become solely an online blog come June. I have been posting AFWAW to the blog and emailing it for years and have decided to stop doing so much extra work. Just click the “follow” button (lower right) and add your email so you get a reminder when a new column is available.

And remember, let’s write carefully out there people.

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