Tuesday, August 30, 2005

"Er"s and "Ear"s

The missionary stood behind the church podium to reintroduce himself to the congregation last Sunday. He hadn't stopped by for more than eight years, he said, adding he only remembered a few people, including my parents, the "McPhearsons."

I inwardly sighed but, because he seemed nice, I would let it pass. A woman seated behind me, though, leaned forward and whispered, "McPhersons."

About the time a child hits second or third grade (maybe first grade or sooner, if the kid is with it), he or she begin internalizing the family surname, noticing mispronunciations and the like. Great, the offspring can put a name to homework and be alphabetized. But this may also be the start of a lifetime of mental jolts.

My name is not hard in the North American phonetic scheme of things.

It's got an "Mc," just like McDonalds. And even 4-year-olds can pronounce that one.

It's got a "Ph," just like phone, another much-pronounced item.

It's got an "er," which so many of us mumble when something is just on the tip of our tongue.

It's got a "son," a word said everyday somewhere in the United States. Probably more than once.

So what's the problem? Where does anyone see an "ear" to make it McPhearson?

While still in grade school, I'd hear my father (reacting to mangled pronunciation) coolly tell the mangler, "There's no fear in McPherson." Decades later, I visited a Scottish Highlands fest and seeing a booth proudly labeled McPherson, I marched up to it. (If this is someone behind a table, she ought to know a thing or two, I decided.) "How do you pronounce that name?" I asked her, pointing to the sign above us. "McPherson," she said slowly. "There's no fear in McPherson." Exactly.

So don't even get me started on telemarketers -- while holding a p-h-o-n-e -- who stammer, "Mic-p..., Mic-per ..."