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?

15 thoughts on “Two types of ambiguity

  1. Your students will bless you for this. My word, as a child: sea-same. As in Aladdin, you know: "Open, sesame!" I eventually got corrected.

  2. I made embarrassing mistakes once upon a time on a Robin and an Oswyn but really, I should have checked on those. I've come across several Jans but when they are European folk–and I think all of my Jans are–I tend to assume they are men rather than women.More difficult to know are names like Chung Hyun-Kyung and Kwok Pui-Lan. I know they are both women, but I would not have been able to tell that from their names. Not only that, but some Asian theologians publish under initials, like old school historians and classicists, partly as a concession to white people who can't pronounce their names. My point is that if I looked up C.S. Song and saw that C.S stood for Choan-Seng, that wouldn't exactly help. What helps is that I've been told he is a man. I have no frame of reference for these. And yes these are major voices in theology

  3. Anastasia, that's part of my point, that it's cultural, and if you (i.e., "one")don't know then you just don't, it doesn't say anything particular about you except that you haven't been to the conferences to see these people and know. If your advisors know, then they should tell you, since these are major voices. But this is really part of cultural capital: whether you encountered the actual scholars, or studied with people who have. So not correcting students, out of some misguided feeling about not embarrassing them, is stingy, keeps them from a certain sort of cultural currency.

  4. Hm, this makes me think that I need to correct the student who keeps saying "CHOWcer" (b/c, after all, that's how I taught them "au" is pronounced in Middle English) and also MaLORy (instead of MAL-uh-ry) and Morte DEE Arthur (somehow not seeing the contraction and *also* mispronouncing "de"). BUT…said student also seems to me like someone on the autism spectrum (high functioning end), and is simultaneous arrogant about what he knows and brutally self-chastising and ashamed when he's wrong. So maybe I should pull him aside after class and make these corrections?Another anecdote: As a grad student I once taught a discussion section for the med-ren lit survey and had as one of my students a now famous actor. Anyway, back when he was my student, he was actually a lack-luster student and a pain in the ass — he often annoyed other students (when he bothered to show up). So I was frequently calling him out for his disruptive behavior. (In his defense, at the time he may have been in character for one of two roles that would inspire that behavior. Darn method actors!) Anywho, he reamed me on my eval (I recognized the handwriting) — or rather, he thought he did. He said I was always a century behind lecture. But I wasn't. The thing is, the lecturer would talk about the 14th century, for example, and in section, I'd write dates like 1381 on the board! But since he never brought this up in class — instead saving this supposed "zinger" for revenge on the eval — it never occurred to me someone wouldn't realize that the 1300s are the 14th century. Now whenever I do dates in class, especially near the beginning, I say things like "Chaucer live in the second half of the 14th century, from about 1340 to 1400."And another, less sexy anecdote, this one about my own failures (to make up for telling tales out of school): I very nearly referred to P. J. P. Goldberg as "she" in multiple places in my first book. It's actually blogging that saved me from that mistake. Since some of the medievalist bloggers are historians of late medieval England (or well, New Kid was before she embarked on her new career), talking to them I heard them refer to "Jeremy Goldberg." Could this be the same person? Indeed, it was! P. J. P. is Peter Jeremy Piers! But I'd assumed P. J. P. was a woman because "she" wrote on women's history. D'oh!I know a number of scholars, American as well as British, who not only publish under initials but then familiarly go by middle names, or nicknames not apparent from the initials, or even nicknames of middle names, which I'm sure is confusing for many. V. A. Kolve is "Del," H. A. Kelly is "Andy," and then there's your examples of Winthrop "Pete" Wetherbee and A. S. G. "Tony" Edwards. Heck, I publish under my full first name, but as you know, I ask people to call me by a nickname that is the *second* half of that name. I even use my full name on Facebook, and you can tell who is really still a close friend by who knows to call me by my nickname.As for childhood mispronunciations, I distinctly remember being really proud of myself when I finally realized that the printed word "meringue" referred to the fluffy pie I heard as "marang."

  5. Dr V, good to see you here! For the sort of student you describe, private instruction seems the way to go. I have to admit, "Chowcer" sets my teeth on edge. I get it from some people before we've said word one about pronouncing ME, which makes me think someone in their undergrad career (when grad students do this) or high school or CC (for undergrads) is perpetuating this pronunciation.

  6. I was in my teens before I connected "orderves" (what my mother would put out for nibbles before a dinner party) with "hors d'ouevres." Just for the record, I would have been impressed that you came up with "hyperbole."

  7. On a recent bunch of papers, I was surprised to see that my students universally thought that the noted Amercan historian Ira Berlin was a woman.I guess no one is named Ira anymore. And since names that end in A usually are feminine, I guess it makes sense.

  8. I've made embarrassing mistakes with people named Evelyn, Leslie, and Marion; I assumed they were all women, when in fact they were all men. Eeek!Excellent post, BTW. I'll share it with my students this week.

  9. Sorry, one more thing–speaking of misspelled or mis-heard phrases: My Comp I classes focus on students' developing critical thinking/reading skills–in addition to all the focus on writing. The course is themed around American mass media and pop culture. (Students are SO disappointed when they realize we're not just "watching movies," LOL!) our very last essay, which they start tomorrow, is a critical analysis of a music video of their own choosing. I put together some example videos and the songs' lyrics, posted them on BlackBoard, and the students and I discussed them together. In my Google Crapshoot search for the lyrics to Kanye West's "Flashing Lights," I stumbled on "Order the h'orderves" in the first stanza. Phonetically, it makes sense. But I made sure to give my students the correct spelling.

  10. I confess that I have *in print* referred to a male academic by a female pronoun because his name is misleading and I didn't figure it out in time.Whenever I think about it, I just cringe.

  11. Jean Toomer…someone just told me this week that they really wanted to "research her," even after we discussed HIS work at length in class.

  12. Thanks to all of you for commenting! Ink: ulp, that's one I didn't know (really not my field, but still . . .). Maybe we need to remind ourselves and our students that search engines are our friends, at least for sex if not for pronunciation. (I can feel an attack of old-fartry coming on; in my day, children, we had to use hard-copy reference books like Who's Who, and there was no way to look up junior scholars, who now tend to have web pages with pictures. And you were dependent on whatever reference books your library happened to own. And walk to it uphill both ways in the snow, barefoot, because boots hadn't been invented.)

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