There was a scene in this week’s episode of Mad Men in which Megan and Don couldn’t remember the name of a colleague’s wife. Seinfeld did the best take on this phenomenon, of course, when all Jerry could remember was that his girlfriend’s name rhymed with a female body part. (“Mulva?”) I found this amusing because I am terrible with names. I was at a party this past weekend, sat down next to a couple of guests, introduced myself to them, got their names, and promptly forgot them. This happens to me all the time. Sometimes a name will come to me, but often it doesn’t—and sometimes I come up with the wrong one and call somebody by a name that isn’t theirs.
(The reverse has happened to me, too. A friend of my wife’s family called me “Mark” for years. I never corrected her, partly because there’s not really a graceful way to do it, and partly because I wanted to see how long she’d keep doing it. We haven’t seen her in a very long time, but I bet I’m still Mark to her.)
Related phenomenon: mispronouncing the family name. When I was a kid, this happened a lot; it still happens now and then, and it annoys me more than people forgetting my name outright. It’s not like “Bartlett” is all that uncommon, or hard to figure out when you see it in print. But as a kid, I was called “Bartell,” “Bartelt,” which is what the family name used to be a couple of generations ago, and sometimes “Barrett,” which was the name of another family in town.
Because I hate it when my name is mispronounced, I hate to be the one who mispronounces somebody else’s. My first piece of advice to relocating radio people has always been to learn the local names, of families and surrounding towns, as soon as you get there, so you don’t mark yourself as an outsider any more than your unfamiliar voice on the radio is going to mark you as an outsider. Another rule: If you aren’t sure how to pronounce a name, decide how you’re going to say it before you say it, and then say it with finality, like you know what it is. Nothing makes you sound dumber than hesitating on a pronunciation and then trying a couple of different versions of it live on the air.
I have known a few people in radio who were incapable of pronouncing certain names. There was a guy on the staff of the college radio station for whom one of the Beatles was named Paul McCarthy. Even after he had been told repeatedly that it was “McCartney” goddammit, he continued to introduce records by “Paul McCarthy and Wings,” and we were licked. We let him go on that way because it was too exhausting otherwise. When I worked in Macomb, Illinois, home of Western Illinois University, the area’s largest employer and the town’s only reason to exist apart from a couple of grain elevators, we had a news guy who called it “YIU,” even after we tried to enlighten him otherwise.
(The guy had gotten off to an inauspicious start apart from the YIU thing. He did his first live newscast under the name “Cliff Hanger,” which was not his real name, and not a name he had told us he was going to use on the air. When I asked him what he thought he was doing in there, he smiled sheepishly and promised not to do it again. He did not get many more chances to do it again. It was maybe a month before he was shown the door.)
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