Saturday, May 23, 2015

Chide That Name!

Whether you realize it or not, names are a part of language, and a by no means unimportant one. I am not even referring to such a somewhat esoteric phenomenon as a proper noun becoming a common one—e.g., Sandwich, Mackintosh, Wellington boots—but to proper names improperly used and a threat to correct usage.

Consider the shocker when a prize-winning racehorse bears the misspelled name American Pharoah. Pharoah, alas, is a fairly common misspelling of pharaoh, but it does not usually get this kind of publicity and fame. The Times of May 23 has an article, “American Pharoah’s Misspelling Mystery,” that sheds light on the matter.

You cannot, of course, blame the horse itself, which, however much horse sense it may possess, does not know with what moniker it has been blessed or cursed. Its chief owner is a rich Egyptian, Ahmad Zayat, owner of Zayat Stables, and you would expect an Egyptian, of all people, to know how to spell pharaoh. But oh no. To be sure, I wonder how many Americans can spell Roosevelt correctly.

Still, no matter what Ahmed Zayat may or may not know, surely there ought to have been a decent speller in his stable—his son, Justin, perhaps. It turns out, however, that not even the Jockey Club took steps to rectify the error. As James L. Gagliano, the Club’s president and CEO put it, “Since the name met all of the criteria for naming and was available, it was granted exactly as it was spelled.”

It now emerges that the Zayat Stables hold an online contest for the naming of their horses, and thus there was the invitation to the public in 2014 to name their crop of two-year-olds. And who won the contest for naming this future champion? It’s all there in the Times: Marsha Baumgartner, of Barnett, Mo., depicted in the paper with her husband, Dave, and described as “a 64-year-old registered nurse in a tiny central Missouri town.”

Unfortunately, though there is a register for nurses, there is none for illiterates. If you inspect the picture, you will find two typical unglamorous Midwesterners of the small-town variety, she even, as one suspects from her chubby cheeks, overweight, but when it comes to learning and refinement, clearly lightweight.

When asked, she commented: “I don’t remember how I spelled it; I don’t want to assign blame. I looked up the spelling before I entered.” That she won’t assign blame is understandable, given on whom it would fall. It also figures that she doesn’t remember how she spelled it, since she managed to forget the spelling in the comparatively short time between looking it up and sending it out.

There is also the question of where, if she isn’t fibbing, she did that looking up. Does she own a reputable dictionary? Or did she find the word in some other worthy publication, say the Sears catalogue or the Farmer’s Almanac. “Pharaoh,” I suspect, is one of the most misspelled words in America, whether the perpetrators are from the ranks of born-again Christians or college students.

What I find somewhat more surprising is discovering that the Jockey Club found the name within the rules, “which include an 18-character limit (Pioneerof the Nile was rendered that way to conform to the guidelines) and a ban on obscene or offensive phrases.” Personally, I consider “pharoah” not just offensive, but actually nothing less than obscene. And, speaking of “less,” Melissa Hoppert, author of the Times article, states that up to six names per horse can be submitted, although “the average is two or less.” Though “fewer” would be correct here, even that seems problematic where “one or two” would be more natural.

T. S. Eliot has written compellingly about the naming of cats, and thus influenced the nomenclature of the musical of that name. Nobody has weighed in on the naming of horses, which strikes me as bizarre in the extreme. But then again, no more so than the naming of some people.

Consider if you will the name of a promising black tennis player, a young man named Frances Tiefoe. Yes, Frances, not Francis. Now whatever may have prompted the parents to give their son a girl’s name—ignorance being the most charitable interpretation—you would think that he himself, with or without friendly advice, would see fit to have his name legally transgendered.

Well, some tennis players do have odd names: no fewer than two women—one white, one black—are called Madison (Keys and Brengle), and one can’t help wondering whether it is derived from a president or an avenue. But a male Frances is unique.

Why does any of this matter? Because where famous persons or equines are concerned, such misguidedness becomes influential and widespread. And the instigators don’t even need to be famous. I doubt whether the first person who mispronounced “grocery” as “groshery” was a celebrity, yet behold the result.

Egypt, for example, is an unlikely culprit. But look: not only Pharoah, but also Pioneerof the Nile. Does it have to be an Egyptian river? Were there no pioneers of the Amazon? Never mind, though. Misnomers will always be among us, only let it not be on account of a prominent horse or sportsman. Granted Tiefoe is not yet celebrated, but he could well become so. And then what might be the names of his future male colleagues: Mary, Josephine, or, tomorrow, Tamara?


  1. Hope Pharoah gets steaks for dinner if he wins The Belmont!

    1. He must not have gotten steaks -- the horse is still alive.
      Best ...

  2. There's only one solution for misspelling "Pharaoh": call in the calvary!

  3. Wow. To think I've been misspelling "pharaoh" all these years. Then again, it's not a word I use all that often...

  4. As 'pharaoh' is pronounced fer-oh, it should be spelled 'pharoah'.

    What is really funny is how Americans say 'Jesus'.
    If they love Jesus so much, at least pronounce the Son of God's name right.

    If someone spelled 'Yeshua', would it be so bad?

    'J' gets people in trouble because it's usually the 'y' sound in other languages.

  5. I guarantee that every English word is a misspelling or mis-pronunciation of another word from another culture.

    Languages are built on mistakes.

    Theatre or theater?

  6. Mossouri doesn't have spell check yet. They're slated to get it in 2016. First comes Kentuky, then Arkansaw, and last is Mussouri.

  7. Wonderful, John. I love this: "...and you would expect an Egyptian, of all people, to know how to spell pharaoh" and "...surely there ought to have been a decent speller in his stable." I thought of the words of W.C. Fields: "Horse sense is the thing a horse has which keeps it from betting on people."

    1. Do the Egyptains know everything about mummies, and moats, spelling, and the supernatural? Why would that be true? Why would there be an expert speller in a horse stall? Those people are usually the kind of dudes that Herzog would drag over 3 mountains with no profit or nothin' A horse whisperer would just be an extra mouth to feed who would eventually cause trouble within the ranks.

    2. Why is this person pretending to be me? Unless I wrote it and don't remember. The grammar is about as bad as mine. Strange. I do like Herzog and hair grease. Maybe I did write it.

  8. Oh, John, time out! Time out!
    Was Mrs. Simon out and about when you posted this one? Would she have allowed it?
    So our poor Missouri woman, in her glowing moment of racehorse glory, has to be maligned for a misspelling that I and most of us perhaps dyslexically missed? Is she "illiterate" for a typo or getting pharoah -- oops, pharaoh -- wrong? And of course you need to bring that golden oldie (brassy more than golden) that she is "chubby", overweight. The couple is "of the small-town variety" of "unglamorous Midwesterns" -- like Brad Pitt? And in "learning and refinement" they are lightweights because ...? Because they didn't get pharaoh right!
    I have defended JS's near-genius all these decades, but this is pure pathology.