The Grammarphobia Blog

A quixotic appeal

Q: Sometimes we Americanize a foreign term and sometimes we pronounce it like the original. Shouldn’t we always pronounce a word like” quixotic” or “homage” the foreign way? And shouldn’t we pronounce a name like “Diaz” or “Du Bois” the old way, even if the person so named disagrees? Do people own their names? Finally, what’s your take on having a Language Academy to tell us if a usage is kosher?

A: I’m sorry, but in general I must disagree with you.

It’s in the nature of a language to adopt words from other languages and make them its own. Spanish, for example, has adopted words from English that are often pronounced as Spanish speakers would naturally say them. That’s how it should be.

I’m not annoyed when I hear the phrase “Nueva York.” A Tijuana resident should not be offended when English speakers say MEX-i-co instead of MAY-he-co. And a Parisian should not be miffed when we say PAR-is instead of pa-REE.

We English speakers adopted the word “toilet” from the French toilette, but we don’t pronounce it twa-LET because for centuries it’s been a bona fide English word. Common English usage has determined its pronunciation in English.

Same with a much older word: “homage.” It entered English in the 1200s, and the pronunciation has naturally become Anglicized. In English, it’s HOM-idj or OM-idj. Anyone who says oh-MAHZH is speaking French, not English.

On the other hand, we DO pronounce some words derived from other languages pretty much the way they’re pronounced in the originals (“rendezvous,” “piñata,” “zeitgeist”).

In the case of “quixotic,” it wasn’t even an adjective in Spanish when the word first showed up in English. It was coined by the British and popularized by an American president, John Adams.

The word “quixotic” first appeared in print in 1718, a shortened version of an earlier English adjective, “quixotical,” first published in 1657.

The definition, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “characteristic of or appropriate to Don Quixote; demonstrating or motivated by exaggerated notions of chivalry and romanticism; naively idealistic; unrealistic, impracticable; (also) unpredictable, capricious, whimsical.”

The pronunciations in English are kwik-SAH-tik and kwik-SAH-ti-kul.

Very soon after the Cervantes novel was published, English speakers had absorbed the hero’s name into English. In fact, the noun “quixote” has been used in English since 1644, and still is, to mean someone who acts like a Don Quixote.

The English pronunciation is KWIK-set or kee-HO-tee, according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

And by the way, the name Quixote was an allusion by Cervantes to the Spanish word quijote (or the obsolete quixote) meaning a cuisse, the thigh-piece of a suit of armor.

Yes, people DO own their names, and they can pronounce them any way they like. If an English speaker named Diaz (in Spanish, it’s Díaz) wants to pronounce the name DIE-us, that’s his business.

I once got a question from a reader asking why people pronounce the NFL quarterback Brett Favre’s name as though the “r” comes before the “v.”

I answered that names don’t operate like normal words. We can pronounce our names any way we want to, no matter how they’re spelled.

And Brett Favre pronounces his last name to rhyme with “carve.” Who am I to argue with a quarterback?

The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, part of the Library of Congress, maintains a Web page to help those who record Talking Books for the Blind. The guide, called “Say How? A Pronunciation Guide to Names of Public Figures,” explains that Brett Favre’s last name is pronounced FARV.

In verifying pronunciations of names, the library service says, “the major source, whenever available, must be the person him/herself.” It goes on to say:

“For instance, the surname Moreno is commonly said as either mor-EEN-o or mor-AIN-o, but Rita Moreno pronounces her name mor-ENN-o. And despite the spelling, Brett Favre says his name is pronounced FARV. So FARV it is, and mor-ENN-o it is, and that’s that.”

I’ve also written a blog item about a variation on this question: whether names ending in “stein” should be pronounced STINE or STEEN.

One final note. I’m against the idea of an “Academy” that would attempt to control the development of English. (It wouldn’t work, anyway.)

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