The first time he said it I let it pass, figured that anyone could mess up something once.
Then he said it again. “Waco.”
But he didn’t say “ WAY- co” like we have all our lives but “WACK-oh.”
Now he really had my attention. I kept listening, wondering if he was trying to be funny or condescending.
Neither. He sincerely thought the home of the Baylor Bears, Dr. Pepper and the traffic circle was pronounced that way.
I was in the middle of being a little condescending myself but then I started to remember other place names, that I’ve mispronounced for years before meeting natives of the area. Like Study Butte. It’s a remote place on the western end of Big Bend National Park. It looks like it’s pronounced “study,” as in why you yell at your kid when they don’t do it at the college you’re paying for.
It all depends on where you live, and in no small part the language of the persons who named it. Some examples:
• Milano. I’m not kidding. You and I have heard people say “Muh-LAWN-oh” like it’s the one in Italy. Once a TV crew was filming at Milano’s livestock auction barn and the director—a New Yorker— instructed his actor to say “we’re here in Muh-LAWN-0h....”
At least a dozen people, including yours truly, reflexively bellowed “Muh-LANN-oh!”
They changed it.
• Houston. Did you ever hear anyone say “HOWS-ton” instead of “HEWS-ton?” Me neither, but apparently there are places in the northeast where they do.
• Milam. One of the few times our county was on national television the announcer called it “Muh-LAMB.” Last week I heard a guy giving a report call us “MILL-um.”
Oh come on people, would our namesake in the Texas Revolution have called out the battle cry “Who will go with old Ben Muh- LAMB into Bexar?”
• Bexar. Since we’re on the subject. It seems the pronunciations “BAY-har” and “Bear” are both perfectly acceptable for San Antonio’s county.
• Calais. They tell me people aren’t so language tolerant in this Maine coastal city.
It was pronounced the French way “Cul-LAY” until they kicked the Acadians (Cajuns) out. Then it became the Anglicized “COWLus” and I’m told to this day that’s the way you’d better say it next time you’re in Maine.
• Arkansas. Ever notice the state is pronounced “Ark- an- SAW” but the city in Kansas is “Ar-KAN-sus?”
Here’s what I was told. The word Arkansas is Native American but it was pronounced one way by French-speaking Cajuns coming up from Louisiana and another way by English-speaking settlers coming west from Tennessee and Kentucky.
• Ouray. This absolute gem of a little city in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains is simultaneously one of the most beautiful places on earth and one of the most mispronounced.
Is it “OOO-ray,” “ YOU-ray,” “OUR-ray” or something even more exotic. The natives say “ YOU-ray” and if they’re lucky enough to wake up every morning and gaze heavenward at the 13,000-foot Amphitheater peaks, they ought to be allowed to call it anything they want.
• Cairo. The city at the souther tip of Illinois isn’t pronounced “KYE-ro,” like the big city in Egypt, it’s “KAY-ro,” like the syrup.
Or do they make the syrup any more. Or is that a sticky question?
• Pierre. Probably the most mispronounced state capital in the United States. The small city in South Dakota isn’t pronounced like the French name— even though it was named for a French explorer, Pierre Chouteau— it’s “PEER.”
Probably a result of peer pressure.
(Okay, I apologize to anyone who speaks any language, including Klingon, for that one.)
• Mexia. This is how you can really tell someone’s not from Texas. I remember when my Missouri uncle told us he drove to Rockdale through “MEX-ee-uh.”
It was like “what are you snickering at, Mike?”
It is, of course, “Muh-HAY-uh,” although it seems “Muh-HAIR” has become pretty acceptable, too.
• Rockdale. I thought it would have been impossible to mispronounce the name of our town.
It’s two perfectly obvious words and all you do is put them together with the accent on “ROCK.”
Who could mess that up?
Hollywood. In the 1978 movie “ Silver Streak,” Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor keep getting thrown off a train that stops in Rockdale, Illinois, a real place not far from Joliet.
Except everyone in the movie says it “Rock-DALE.”
I tried to say that one time. Sprained my tongue. Was in a splint for three days.
Then I mispronounced everything.