It’s Not What You Say, It’s How You Say It

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In the space of a week recently, I heard two professional actors mispronounce “Biloxi,” the city in Mississippi. Each one said “buh-LOCK-see,” which is how it looks, instead of the correct “buh-LUCK-see.” The first was the would-be romantic lead in THE ROSE TATTOO, a Tennessee Williams play set on the Gulf Coast, where Biloxi is. Even a heavily accented Sicilian, which the actor was playing, would have known that word. He also flubbed “Pass Christian,” another coastal town, by pronouncing it like the religious devotee instead of the proper “kriss-tee-ANNE.” (Let me assure you that the playwright, a New Orleans habitué, expected to hear the genuine, er, patois.) The second was Danny DeVito in Tim Burton’s live-action DUMBO. Buh-LOCK-see again. His character also should have known better because his circus had just traveled through the region, and he’s telling someone that he made a purchase there. If you would like to hear the word pronounced correctly and enjoy yourself at the same time, just listen to my favorite cover of Jesse Winchester’s beautiful song.

Back to real life. Maybe you remember the joke in SHOWGIRLS in which the Elizabeth Berkley character feigns sophistication by bragging that she’s wearing “ver-SAYSS.” (If you don’t remember, count yourself lucky: it’s one of the worst movies ever made.) Tee-hee, the other characters and we in the audience know it’s really “ver-SAHCH-ee.” Well, it turns out the joke is on us sophisticates, because Donatella Versace says that her last name is actually pronounced “Versach-eh,” not “Versach-ee.” That’s gotta be irritating.

Mispronunciation, especially of such proper names, is frequently used in pop culture to depict naivete, a lack of or disdain for wisdom and knowledge. But as we have just learned from Signora Versace and the two Bilocksians, naivete is not exclusive to the Jed Clampett family. There was a perfectly fine dialect coach on ROSE TATTOO, but I’m sure she was hired to work on the Sicilian part, not the Southern part. Besides, that same coastal town also tripped up one of my boyhood idols.

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As a grade schooler, I really enjoyed the early-morning kids’ television show CAPTAIN KANGAROO, the SESAME STREET of its day, which aired on CBS for 29 years. The warm, gentle host was played by Bob Keeshan, and over the years he became like a kindly uncle — in hindsight, one of the first indications of how affecting tv can be on impressionable minds, though the Captain was careful to use his powers only for good. But one day it happened. He flubbed “Biloxi” the same way DeVito did last week. It was a tiny little error, but it stopped the younger me cold. In an instant it sunk into my naive brain that adults were indeed fallible. That day, Captain Kangaroo taught me more than he’d intended. You may laugh, but I didn’t. 

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When you flub a proper name, it says one more thing: you ain’t from around here, whether it’s rural Oregon (“it’s Willamette, dammit!”) or a fishing village in Maine. General Tadeusz Kościuszko was a Polish-Lithuanian war hero who fought not only for his native country, but also in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. So he’s revered both in Europe and here in America, where there’s a bridge named after him in New York state, and a town named after him in Mississippi (minus the “z”). How you pronounce that name depends on where you are. Up north it’s “kuh-SHOOS-ko,” but in Oprah Winfrey’s hometown it’s “koz-ee-US-ko.” (You’d expect the more elaborate one to be for Yankees, wouldn’t you?) There used to be a practice called “four-walling” of B-movies, cheap flicks like THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN. Rather than use an expensive major distributor, the producer would simply rent out individual theaters for a week or so, all over a televised region’s reach on the same week, and blast out tv spots listing all the towns which would get the attraction. We could always tell an announcer was from the Northeast when he got to “kuh-SHOOS-ko.” Ain’t no such place down here. 

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Believe me, I sympathize. For example, I have to stop and think whenever I want to utter the name of that distinguished Napa Valley appellation, St. Helena, because I’m tempted to pronounce it like the Montana capital. That’s always been what I’ve heard while reading the word, and it’s hard to shake. I finally came up with a mnemonic, “Catalina,” because the proper pronunciation rhymes with that. But I still have to go offline for a second before I open my mouth.

Sometimes a little thing like this can even cause marital discord, as with the couple who were driving down a Southern California highway and passed an exit sign reading, “La Jolla Parkway, 1 mile.” “Ah, we’re at La Jolla,” said the driver. “La HOY-a,” replied his wife. “But the sign says ‘La JOLLA’!” “Yeah, but it’s Spanish: La HOY-a!” “No way!” said he. “Let’s TAKE that exit, pull into the first place we see, go inside, and ask somebody!” So they take the exit, stop at the nearest place, go inside, and tap a guy on the shoulder. “Sir, could you please help us settle a little argument? Please tell us where we are, and say it VERY SLOWLY.”

The guy stares and says, “BURR…GERR…KING.”

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3 Responses to It’s Not What You Say, It’s How You Say It

  1. beth says:

    I loved the captain!

  2. Tom Dupree says:

    It’s been going on for a while. In the film version of SUMMER AND SMOKE, Laurence Harvey tries on a quasi-Delta accent but, during a listing of his recent travels, flubs by saying “New OR-lee-unz” instead of what any Mississippian — including Tennessee Williams — would know as “Noo or-LEANS.” A character in the final scene gets the diagonal area of the Mississippi Delta right, though: “from the Peabody lobby [in Memphis] to Catfish Row in Vicksburg.”

  3. Tom Dupree says:

    And today during FOR COLORED GIRLS WHO HAVE CONSIDERED SUICIDE… one actor pronounced the Mississippi town “NAT-CHEZ,” equal emphasis, when all locals know it’s actually “NAT-chez.” A simple limerick will illustrate: “There was a young lady from Natchez / Whose garments were always in patches. / When told this was so, / She said “Yes, ah know: / Wherever ah itches, ah scratches.”

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