By Gay Cioffi
Just as in real estate where the three most important things are: LOCATION… LOCATION…. LOCATION, when bestowing a name on a baby the three most important things are: PRONUNCIATION… PRONUNCIATION… PRONUNCIATION.
As a person whose last name is almost never pronounced correctly, Cioffi (the Ci is like Ch and …oh, if only I had a buck for every time I have had to say that!!), I know that navigating the social territory of “when and how often to correct” those who mispronounce it is tricky, to say the least. I had a third grade teacher who pronounced it KEY-OFF and I cringed every time I was called on for the entire school year.
And while there is the occasional person who states that they don’t mind the various ways that his or her name is pronounced, he or she is the exception, not the rule. I remember being surprised by a friend whose daughter’s name is Lara, (pronounced LARR-a), dismissing my apology for calling her Laura, with a “that’s okay, Larra, Laura, Lora, any of those are fine.”
Most parents, me included, have a very specific pronunciation in mind when naming their child. My daughter Mia is often called Maya, but it doesn’t happen so frequently that I regretted the choice or considered changing her name, which I have heard of happening. I know of one such parent who after about a year of having her daughter Andrea, (accent on the second syllable) called AN-drea (accent on the first syllable) changed her name altogether. While such a reaction is drastic, it points to the importance of knowing what you are getting into when you choose a name that has various pronunciations or a difficult pronunciation.
So yes, you need to add PRONUNCIATION to the list of considerations as you search for that perfect name. Will it be Leila (LEE-la) or Leila (LAY-la)? And if you love that first pronunciation, know that your child will be constantly put in the position of having to say, often more than once, what the correct pronunciation is. In my nursery school class, we have had Leo (LEE-o) and Leo (LAY-o), Kara (CARE-a) and Kara (CAR–a), Anna (ANN-a) and Anna (ON-a) and Thomas (TOM-us) and Thomas (TOE-mas).
This was illustrated loud and clear by a friend recently who expressed a lot of concern about how her first name would be pronounced at her upcoming graduation ceremony from a Masters program at Columbia University. Granted, she has a very unusual first name, Koreli, a name that bears absolutely no resemblance to how it is pronounced Kor-RAY (accent second syllable). But nevertheless, after five years in the program, her professor, after being corrected many times, continues to call her KO-ray, placing the accent on the first syllable not the second. So rather than happily anticipating the upcoming event, she was still anxiously trying to decide if and how to request the correct pronunciation of her first name as she walked across the stage.
On the show All Things Considered on National Public Radio, when asking for listener comments, directions are given on where to send feedback and conclude with a final request to please be sure to include how the name should be pronounced. I appreciate the care and respect afforded NPR listeners but know from experience that not everyone practices that approach. If your heart is set on naming your daughter after the adorable character in the Madeline (Mad-e-line) books, just be prepared for those who will call her Mad-a-lynn.
Gay Cioffi has been the Director of the Little Folks School in Georgetown, Washington D.C. since 1980, and has been the recipient of two Wolf Trap Outstanding Teacher Awards. She is also an accomplished painter and photographer, whose work has been exhibited extensively.