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 diemel.org 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.

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