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THE IDLE AMERICAN
Wednesday, June 3, 2009 • Posted June 3, 2009

What’s in a Name?...

What’s in a name? Such a question blows the lid off Pandora’s Box, which turns out to be a “box in a box in a box in a box” kind of deal.

The first woman in Greek Mythology went about carrying a huge jar (persnickety historians insist that it was a jar instead of a box, and the “persnickitiest” think it may have been a purse.) Each time she removed the lid, ills such as toils, sickness, and assorted other perils were unleashed on mankind. One day, though, she discovered that at the very bottom was a layer of hope, thus completing the mixed bag in the—take your pick—box/jar/purse.

Some historians consider it quite remarkable that this single name “Pandora” has survived across the years, given that her name doesn’t end with the typical Greek letters of “us.”

You remember: Zeus, Erasmus, Prometheus, Epimetheus and a bunch of other “us-es;” their identities have held up well across the centuries. Such recollections lay waste to folks of our era who think people named Elvis, Fabio, Prince, Liberace, Madonna, Babe (the pig, the famous woman golfer or the baseball great) and Cher will endure across the ages….

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Most of us need at least two names, if not three or four or more, for current identification, with little hope of their having much import beyond signatures on current mortgages, bank checks, licenses, certificates and other documents. Except for a generation or so of “next of kin,” they will eventually blend into the vapors of what used to be.

Still, it is hammered into us at an early age that names are important. Liberal use of honey sweetens conversations with frequent mention of others’ names. Folks tire of many things, but rarely the sound of their own names.

My journalism teacher for a half-dozen college classes belabored the importance of “getting it right,” particularly the spelling of names in birth announcements and obituaries. Tess Martin frequently repeated, “For many, the only times their names are in print occur at birth and at death. Even ‘Smith’ can be spelled ‘Smyth,’” she warned….

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During the several hundred graduation ceremonies that I’ve attended, Miss Martin’s admonitions always come to mind. I wonder if all the names are printed correctly on diplomas and in programs, as well as pronounced properly when graduates cross the stage.

Regrettably, some of the name-callers give little time or thought to advance preparation for correct pronunciation. It’s common to hear comments like, “I hope I pronounced that right,” or “That’s as close as I can get,” or, even worse, to snicker or cough through bungled pronunciations. How lame….

  • * * * *

Some years ago, I rather dreaded the assignment of introducing a nationally-renowned speaker. His name: Jack Yianitsis. I felt strongly that a “last name bumble” loomed.

During lunch, I meekly asked him how to pronounce “Yianitsis.”

“You don’t say it, you ‘sneeze it’,” he joked. The pressure off, I got it right….

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Col. Max Smith, a math/physics teacher at San Marcos Academy where most personnel wear multiple hats, has announced graduates’ names at most commencement exercises during the dozen years he’s served there.

It is a volunteer assignment that he has discharged with near perfection.

In so doing, he has mastered wheezes, gurgles, nasal inflections and the placement of unlikely accents. He’s determined to master name pronunciations of a couple of dozen graduates each year who find their way to San Marcos from the other side of the globe, such as South Korea, Vietnam, Taiwan, Japan, Thailand and China. He faced a real “toughie” two years ago: Phurin Rattanawenawatee from Phavankanong, Bangkok, Thailand….

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A few days ago, I “heard him in action” at SMA’s spring commencement exercises. Asian parents’ faces brightened when the names of their graduates were called.

Col. Smith visits with seniors about name pronunciations on numerous occasions during weeks prior to the ceremony. It shows. He handles this assignment better than anyone I’ve ever heard.

His mantra: We honor the Lord by honoring His people and the strangers in their midst.

And before you ask: He pronounces the names of Texans—such as “Jane Hutt”—just fine, too….

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Dr. Newbury is a speaker and writer in the Metroplex. Send inquiries and comments to: newbury@speakerdoc.com. Phone: 817-447-3872. Web site: www.speakerdoc.com

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