I still remember my confusion in a tenth-grade English class when a teacher asked what the technical term was for exaggeration. No one else knew. I raised my hand and said, “Hyper Bowl.”
The teacher said, “Pronounced correctly, please.”
No one said a thing. I had no idea. And I still think I should have got some credit for knowing the term, which I could spell even if I couldn’t pronounce it. It would have been far better pedagogy to have said, “Yes, hyperbole.” But I had already got up that teacher’s nose, two weeks into the semester, so that was his way of getting back at me. After correcting his grammar publicly and obnoxiously the following week, I suddenly got transferred into the class I wanted to be in, but which The Powers That Be claimed was full, when I asked about transferring. I felt I’d had the last laugh.
At a certain point in education, one’s public errors may have more to do with gender problems than with pronunciation. From listening to professorial chat when I was in grad school, I have “always” known that Jan Ziolkowski is a man. Because I met her at a conference before seeing her name in print, I knew Dorsey Armstrong is a woman. But I remember being astonished when a professor informed me that Hardy Long Frank was female. Until Women Medievalists and the Academy, I didn’t know James Bruce Ross was a woman (really, how would you?). I have several times had to inquire about British scholars who publish under initials only, before referring to them in conference papers.
With age and time on the conference circuit, you figure out people who are active scholars now, but the past is not always an open book. If you know that names like Ashley, Brooke, Courtney, Evelyn, and Shirley were once masculine, then when you run across a citation from, let’s say the 1940’s, then you know you should inquire, if not simply assume a masculine gender (Shirley got to be female after the Bronte book; Ashley and Courtney are more recent changes; I know Shannons of both sexes, in my generation). But what if you don’t know? And what if the last name is of ambiguous nationality, and you don’t know if you’re dealing with Jean, nom masculin francais, or Jean, a Scottish lass? Or if the first name is from a language unfamiliar to you: is it obvious that Miceal is a man?
I think it’s part of my job to make sure that my students know who’s what, when I know myself. Certainly I try not to embarrass them when I make corrections in either gender or pronunciation. I always say something like “There’s no shame in not knowing, but actually it’s . . . ” I would like to be more subtle, but when I try, I run into the problem of listeners who don’t take hints: I have had students who believe that the WICKliff of whom I speak is some other writer than the WYEcliff they are talking about. So I figure I had better be blunt (not sharp), and better they feel embarrassed by me, now, in my office or in the relative privacy of class (where probably everyone else was wrong, too), than later, at a conference or some other public forum. And speaking of those, I have also explained that yes, the Tony Edwards you just met is A. S. G., and Pete Wetherbee is not just related to Winthrop, they are one and the same.
What ambiguous names have you had or observed trouble with, O Gentle Readers? How do you handle corrections?