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Opinion

The way to say those tricky VIP names

Mispronouncing them can be a grievous faux pas.

By Lionel Beehner / May 14, 2008



In the delicate world of diplomatic protocol, mispronouncing a foreign leader's name ranks among the worst of faux pas. But that is lost on many Americans.

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Who can forget Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's verbal gymnastics after being asked by Tim Russert to name the new president of Russia? Most transcripts cleaned it up as "Medvedev – whatever."

Or recall the guffawing last September after a draft of President Bush's speech before the United Nations included the phonetic spellings of several names of foreign places and leaders. Among them: Harare (hah-RAR-ray) and Mugabe (moo-GAH-bee).

At a time when the United States is trying to improve its image abroad, mangling the names of foreign dignitaries does not help. Nowhere is this issue more sensitive than at the United Nations, where diplomats view the mispronunciation of names as a subtle if passive-aggressive form of UN bashing.

Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the Egyptian former secretary-general whose name launched a thousand jokes ("The man so nice they named him twice," David Letterman quipped), wrote in his memoir that he resented Republican Sen. Bob Dole's "mocking pronunciation of my name – Boo-trus, Boo-trus –" during the 1996 presidential campaign. It "sounded like a jeering crowd," he wrote.

Former Secretary-General Kofi Annan's name also was often mispronounced. He told NPR that his surname rhymed with "cannon," but that did not stop most people from pronouncing it "uh-non."

As a UN specialist told me, "[It's] pronounced with an accent on the first syllable, even though people think that's an American way of screwing up the pronunciation, which they assume is French-like."

And despite being UN secretary-general for more than a year now, Ban Ki-moon still gets addressed as Mr. Ki-moon or Mr. Moon. This prompted his chief of staff to send out an e-mail in March on the correct way to refer to the South Korean diplomat. As in many East Asian languages, the UN chief's first name is his surname. Thus, his correct title is Secretary-General Ban, and it "is pronounced Baahn, as in 'Autobahn.' "

Of course, the names of some of Ban's predecessors don't exactly skip off the tongue. Take, for example, Dag (as in "bag") Hammarskjold and U Thant ("U" is an honorific in Burmese that means "uncle" but often got confused for his first name).

Americans have always struggled with foreign names, whether they are capitals (is it KA-bul or Ka-BUL?), countries (I-Ran or ee-RON?), or leaders (MAL-iki or Ma-LI-ki?). We still call Myanmar the "country formerly known as Burma," as if Burma were Prince.

Yet one easy step for the next president – something that would do wonders to improve our image abroad – is to bone up on the pronunciations of the names of heads of state.

Imagine the horror when President Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov of Turkmenistan comes to Washington.

At least Ban is not above poking fun at his own name. As the New York Observer reported in January 2007, he told a breakfast audience that he should have changed the English spelling of his surname – maybe to "Bahn" or "Bon."

But, he said, "since there will be so many things to ban as secretary-general, it is very relevant to my job."

Lionel Beehner, formerly a senior writer at the Council on Foreign Relations, is a freelance writer in New York. ©2008 Los Angeles Times.