Saturday, November 2, 2002

Your name is whaaat?

I once had a last name even George W. could pronounce correctly.

Life was easy when I was a Samples. Oh, sure, sometimes I got jokes about my chubby "cousin" Junior, the one with the overalls and the sign that said BR549. But I look nothing like him.

Frat boys occasionally brought up another famous Samples, an actress named Candy. I'm told I look nothing like her, either.

Then I took my husband's name, and everything changed. I officially became one of those patient souls whose identities confound entire cities.

So far, only one random person has gotten ours right: A bilingual employee at Fifth-Third Bank who usually answers the Spanish line. I was so excited I made her say it a couple of times.

"Goo-tee-AIR-rez," she enunciated, complete with the trilled "r."

From Papanikolaou....

In search of other confusingly named people, I called up the Papanikolaous of the west side.

"I haven't really thought about it, to tell you the truth," says 21-year-old Theo P.

He couldn't spell his own last name until the fourth grade. Friends learned how to say it correctly, but now they usually just call him "Papa Nick," he says.

The correct pronunciation is "Pa-pa-NICK-oh-lau." It's Greek. The only person to get it right on the first try was a professor of Turkish descent who had his own crazy last name, Mr. Papanikolaou says.

This is ironic, because as we all know from My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Turkey and Greece don't get along.

... to Nguyen

Other names look tough but sound simple. Many Nguyens, for instance, mysteriously go by "Win."

"It's not pronounceable by Western people, so we pretty much answer to anything," Mary Nguyen says cheerfully. She's a Vietnamese-American Ph.D.student at the University of Cincinnati.

In the authentic version of Nguyen, the "ng" at the beginning sounds like the end of the word "thing." The entire name is expressed as one syllable with inflection at the end, like a question.

Forget about attempting this. Some Vietnamese prefer to have Westerners say "Nuh-GUY-en" or "NOO-jen," Ms. Nguyen says.

She uses "Win" and spells it that way when making dinner reservations. At least one professional athlete shares her preference: linebacker Dat Nguyen of the Dallas Cowboys.

Couch-potato sports fans may be our best pronouncers. They practice on whoppers like Tshimanga Biakabutuka, a football player, and Dikembe Mutombo of basketball fame.

Sometimes, though, even sports journalists give up. In Pittsburgh, legendary radio announcer Myron Cope just says "Foo" when he means Steelers running back Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala.

I'm getting used to weird pronunciations now. Like everyone else, I appreciate when people give it a try.

Just don't call me "Goo," please. and 859-578-5584.