March 17, 2015

Some Surname Stories

I am a big fan of Bill Maher, the political satirist and host of Real Time with Bill Maher. When I first heard of Bill Maher, however, I was surprised that his name was pronounced Mar, as I had a friend who spelled his surname the same way but pronounced it Ma'-her. The other day, I heard a radio report that involved another person seemingly with the same last name, but a name pronounced Ma-her'. Thus, a five-letter name is pronounced in the U.S. in at least three different ways! I wonder if these people are related. Wikipedia suggests that Maher as a surname can have an Arabic or Irish origin. Who knows?

My own name, Deimel, can conceivably be pronounced with an accent on the first or second syllable, or even with neither syllable being accented. I have no idea whether there are unrelated Deimels in the world, and I suspect that pronunciation has simply drifted over the generations.

In any case, the spelling of my surname is, at least in America, problematic. The i-before-e thing has so been drilled into the minds of impressionable children that most adults have a very difficult time writing e before i. I remember the rule of “i before e, except after c, or when sounding like a as in neighbor and weigh.” There were some exceptions to the exception worked into this rhyme, but I don’t remember the extension, and probably few people do. I’m sure the list was not comprehensive. (Exceptions include seize, weird, foreign, and, of course, Deimel).

Many’s the time I have stood in front of someone and spelled my last name slowly and carefully. And I have watched the person write D-i-e-m-e-l. A couple of days ago, I placed an order over the telephone—not something I commonly do. I made sure that my name had been written down correctly. When asked for my e-mail address, I said “lionel at deimel dot org,” the source of which was clearly understood, as I was not asked to spell out the address.  After some time, however, I had not received e-mail confirmation of my order. I suspected that the confirmation had been sent to the wrong address. I called the merchant, who asked for my order number, which I didn’t have because I had not received an order confirmation. Anyway, as I feared, although the person who took my order had my name in front of him, when he copied my surname into the e-mail address field, he transposed the two vowels. The e-mail did not bounce, as there is actually a Internet domain. Sigh.

Incidentally, Deimel is a name of Germanic origin. In German, when i and e are juxtaposed, the second letter, not the first, is sounded. (Think, for example, Diesel.) In English, where one of the letters is given its usual sound, it is the first letter that is sounded, as in weird.

All of which is to day, I have to resign myself to having my name either mispronounced or mis-transcribed.

March 10, 2015

A New Poem

As a railfan, I pay a lot of attention to train accidents. A particularly unfortunate and inexplicable accident happened in Valhalla, New York, on February 3. I wrote a poem about that accident and posted it on Facebook. I had employed what for me were unusual techniques, and I was looking for feedback on the result. What feedback I did get—not a all of it came through Facebook—was not especially positive. I therefore revised the poem, and feedback this time was good enough for me to consider the poem done, at least for now.

I have posted the poem on my Web site. It is titled “Metro-North Accident, Valhalla, New York, February 3, 2015,” and you can read it here. Comments on the poem will be much appreciated. You can’t leave them on the Web site, but you can leave them here.

NTSB investigators at the scene of the Valhalla accident (photo by NTSB)