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How Do You Pronounce That Writer’s Name?

Last week I saw Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s latest magnificent film, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. (It should be assumed by now that all of that man’s films are magnificent.)

Of course the subject of how one pronounces his name came up…

I myself say something like “A-pea-chat-pong Wee-rah-say-tah-koon.” (He very graciously invites folks to call him “Joe.”)

This got me thinking about writers whose names I always hesitate before saying. (My recent interview with Yuriy Tarnawsky also brought this subject to mind; I sometimes wonder if his name scares readers away. He, perhaps tired of folks mispronouncing his name—I should have asked him about that!—eventually created made a character called “Hwbrgdtse.”)

So I thought I’d enlist the help of the Big Other community in overcoming my speech impediments—or at least see how many others are (mis-)pronouncing the same names as me:

1. Donald Barthelme

I’ve long pronounced the th as “th,” like the th in They Live!, despite long suspecting I’m in the wrong. Someone more knowledgeable than me always pronounces it as a hard t; I suspect the stinker’s right. There is also some debate over whether that me is a “me” or an “em.” Me, I say “me”—probably to my detriment.

(Once, while speaking with someone who had attended a party at Barthelme’s apartment, I asked him how the author had pronounced his own last name. He replied, “It didn’t come up.”)

2. Roald Dahl

I noticed only recently that I have had, since childhood, a tendency to say “RAH-old,” which is of course dyslexic. Plus, I often pronounce the h in his last name: “Da-ha-uhl.” That can’t be right. (“Da-haha-uhl”?)

3. Elaine and Willem de Kooning

Is there or is there not a final g? Perhaps in America there is. (This might be similar to how we get to have our own pronunciation of “van Gogh.”) Or perhaps Elaine pronounced it one way, Vill-elm another? (They differed in many matters.)

(They also weren’t writers—at least, not to the best of my knowledge—but I felt like including them anyway. We’ve already established my knowledge is flawed. And they partied with Donald Bartleby, I believe.)

4. Jonathan Lethem

LEE-them, LAY-them, LEH-them; I cycle through them. (Every third time through, I pronounce it “Let-hem.”)

5. Vladimir Nabokov

All I know is that Sting sang it incorrectly.

6. Anthony Powell

A certain Mr. Smartypants I know (see #1) tells me this one’s not pronounced the way it looks. Could have fooled me.

7. Evelyn Waugh

Even Brits get this one incorrect on certain occasions, especially during wartime.

8. Elfriede Jelinek

Most of the letters are silent, or so I’ve heard tell…but which ones?

(Notice that we are no longer proceeding alphabetically.)

9. Thomas Pynchon

Someone recently told me that this should be pronounced “Pin-Shoan,” and not “PINE-shoan” (rhymes with “pine cone”), which is how I like to say it. (It’s wrong, but I like it.) However: I’ve stood in the shadows of Pynchon scholars, many of whom are tall, and that’s not at all how they pronounced it. Someone is wrong.

10. J.K. Rowling

No one ever gets this right. Though I doubt she minds much.

Please do chime in in the comments as to which of these you think you know how to say. As well as to any other name that perplexes you.

Update 1: This much better post answers many of my questions, as well as several I didn’t think to ask. (And it too was updated—again, to better effect—here.)

Update 2: One thing I do know: Thai people commonly refer to one another by their first names. So it’s totally OK to refer to Apichatpong Weerasethakul as “Apichatpong.”

Although…Thai people tend to add an honorific, “Khun”—คุณ—which means “you,” and is pronounced like “koon”—before that first name. Which would kind of be like our saying “Mr. Apichatpong.” Which would probably sound weird here (as well as there).

So, purely for cultural reasons, we might refer to him by his surname…while Thais might refer to him by his given name. I myself like to refer to him in the Thai style (I used to live in Thailand, and speak Thai), but that creates further confusion, since Americans might think that Thai names are written surname-first (which they are not).

…Oh,  language!

  • A. D. Jameson is the author of five books, most recently I FIND YOUR LACK OF FAITH DISTURBING: STAR WARS AND THE TRIUMPH OF GEEK CULTURE and CINEMAPS: AN ATLAS OF 35 GREAT MOVIES (with artist Andrew DeGraff). Last May, he received his Ph.D. in Creative Writing from the Program for Writers at UIC.

17 thoughts on “How Do You Pronounce That Writer’s Name?

  1. Re Elfriede Jelinek – you can hear her name pronounced in the following video at around 0:35.

  2. I pronounce “Roald Dahl” as “rolled doll”, which I hope is close enough–especially since I spent my first fifteen years or so thinking his name was Ronald.

  3. Re: Volodya.

    “Italians say NaBOkov, accent in the middle, as Russians
    also do. Na-BO-kov. A heavy open ‘o’ as in ‘Knickerbocker.’ My New England ear is not offended by the long elegant middle ‘o’ of Nabokov as delivered in American academies. The awful ‘Na-bah-kov’ is a despicable gutterism. Well, you can make your choice now. Incidentally, the first name is pronounced Vladeemer–rhyming with “redeemer”–not Vladimir rhyming with Faddimere (a place in England, I think).”

      1. I say Kuh-THOOL-(h)oo. And I scowl at those who say Kuh-TOOL-oo. Scowl just awfully.

  4. movie looks amazing. thanks for sharing.

    the only name i know for almost certain is Barthelme. and it’s pronounced, as was customary with all the students anyway, with a ‘th’ sound and something between a ‘mee’ and ‘may’ at the end. (from my time at the Center for Writers, with brothers Rick and Steve, great teachers).

    1. The debate continues, then! Because that Millions post I linked to claims:

      Donald Barthelme = “Bartle-may” not “Bar-THELM” as I had originally heard. Michael Silverblatt solved that one for me.

      The question is: how did he say it? (Or did he never say it?)

      I’d been hoping that Tracy Daugherty would address the topic in Hiding Man, but he didn’t.

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