Written on 25 September 2009
Long, long ago, when I was a schoolboy, it always irritated me that some of the masters at each of the three Grammar Schools I went to, insisted on pronouncing my name as Queue-nane with the accent on the Q. It should be pronounced with an indefinite vowel ‘u’ and the accent on the second syllable. My Dad once went to see one of my Headmasters to complain. For a while thereafter, the masters got it correct but one by one they relapsed into the incorrect pronunciation. Why, I wondered.
Then when I first joined the RAF, I noticed that every officer, and I do mean every, referred to me as Queue-nane with the accent on the queue, but everyone else got it right. Therefore, I concluded that only posh people were unable, or unwilling, to pronounce my surname correctly. Of course, as a very junior airman I was not permitted to correct an officer!
I remember hearing Peter Ustinov, the famous actor, raconteur and humanitarian, saying on the radio many, many years ago, that he had despaired of trying to get people to pronounce his surname correctly – the Russian way: Oosteenoff with the accent on the second syllable. There are some irritating pronunciations used by some news readers these days. Very early this very morning a presenter on the 0500 Sky News, when referring to the finding of water on the Moon, said “H Twenty has been found on the Moon”! A little later an ITV newscaster several times aspirated the H in HIV.
Many people pronounce the single letter H as ‘Haitch’ and I suppose you can understand why if you were not brought up correctly. On Channel 4’s Countdown yesterday the 7-letter word ‘aitches’ cropped up; but everyone in the studio, contestants, presenters and probably the audience as well, knew that the letter H is spelled aitch and pronounced without aspiration. I don't know why, but it is!
Some weeks ago, early in the morning, whilst still only half awake, I was startled to hear a story on the ITV News about what I took to be an Indonesian footballer called Archie Pelargo. It turned out that the story was about some floods in the Indonesian archipelago!
We regularly have to listen to news readers on all three major UK news channels mispronouncing such common names as Kabul, Peshawar, Medvedev, Sarkozy, and Boris. Then there is Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s famous mispronunciation of Al Qaeda. I know, from personal experience, that some Arabic (and Urdu) consonants are very difficult for the English to pronounce correctly, but really, Gordon, someone must have told you off by now for pronouncing Al Qaeda as Alky Ada? It sounds so ridiculous.
When I first arrived in Pakistan as a flying instructor (1969) one of my students was an Iranian called Khusro. The ‘kh’ was supposed to be pronounced gutturally, similar to the ‘ch’ in the Scottish loch, but stronger. At first, I couldn’t produce that sound so I simply addressed him as ‘Kussro’. That was very unfortunate! It was only some weeks later that another of the Iranian students, thinking perhaps that the joke had gone on too long, pointed out to me that ‘kusro’ is a taboo Farsi word that means an intimate part of the female anatomy (beginning with a ‘c’ in English). No wonder they all laughed out loud every time I entered the students’ crew room and called out, “Are you ready to fly, Khusro!”
All the above is about what we used to call ‘standards’. I think it is bad manners not to pronounce someone’s name correctly. However, even I have been known to get names wrong. I still cringe with embarrassment when I recall the following anecdote.
One day at RAF Scampton, Lord Lichfield, a cousin of HM The Queen and a well-known professional photographer, visited the Red Arrows to take some photographs for a calendar he was preparing. I welcomed him on behalf of the Station Commander when he arrived on base and initially addressed him as My Lord as he got out of his car. He grinned and said, “Patrick will do nicely, Tony.” A few minutes later, I had to introduce him to one of the Red Arrows’ flying clothing workers who was waiting to fit Patrick with specialist equipment prior to his photographic trip with Red Leader.
“Sir,” I said to Lord Lichfield, opting for the more formal mode of address in front of an airman, “May I introduce Senior Aircraftman Jones who will measure you for your flying helmet. Jones, this is Lord Snowdon.”
“Tony,” said Lord Lichfield, with a laugh as he shook hands with SAC Jones, “call me Patrick – or sir if you really must – but please don’t ever mix me up with Snowdon!” (Lord Snowdon was the husband of Princess Margaret, the sister of HM The Queen.)
Both the noble lords are now deceased.