Gurdon: What's in a name? Vexation if it's mispronounced

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Local,Meghan Cox Gurdon

Only people whose names are difficult for others to pronounce may be able to appreciate the almost limitless pleasure it gave me this week to hear the name "Sir John Gurdon" repeated in media coverage.

The British scientist won this year's Nobel Prize in medicine (an award shared with Japanese researcher Shinya Yamanaka) for his discovery that adult cells, and not just embryonic cells, can be reprogrammed and repurposed.

This is a magnificent and hugely consequential achievement, of course, but to me, Sir John will be, even more importantly, the fellow who finally taught Americans to say my last name correctly.

For 21 years and six days, through the happy miracle of marriage, I've shared with my husband an ancient family name that originated in France and traveled to Britain in 1066. It was a big year for Frenchmen to move across the English Channel, it seems. Somewhere in the 13th century, the descendents of Jefry de Gurdon got rid of their "de" and began going by a streamlined version.

Maybe our ancestors dropped the "de" in the hopes that people would stop mispronouncing their name. Maybe in England people did stop mispronouncing the name. In the United States, alas, for reasons that I cannot quite understand, this seemingly straightforward arrangement of letters produces constant puzzlement.

"Meghan Gur-DON?" a receptionist will say.

"Actually, it's GUR-don," I will correct in a friendly way.

"Oh, right ... Gur-DON."

Sigh. Never mind. More commonly, the "u" transmogrifies in the eye of the beholder.

"Mrs. ... GORDON?"

"Actually, it's GUR-don."

There is always a pause. The name is reread. The brain is still confused.

"Oh, it looks like Gordon," my interlocutor will eventually manage.

"Not really," I think but do not say.

For a long time, I tried to use this misconception as a tool for fixing the correct pronunciation in people's minds. I would mention the name of the British general (played in the movies by Charlton Heston) who was beheaded by the forces of the Mahdi in Sudan in 1885, then offer a clever mnemonic.

"It's like Gordon of Khartoum, but with a 'u,' " I'd say, "As in, 'You certainly wouldn't want to be Gordon of Khartoum.' "

Sometimes this was met with an "Ah!" and a gleam of understanding. More often, unfortunately, this approach produced confusion rather than clarity, and eventually I abandoned it. It's bad enough having an obscure and unpronounceable name without adding apparent lunacy to the situation.

Now with the 2012 Nobel Prize, we have a Gurdon sufficiently well-known -- at least this week -- that his name has been proclaimed across our fruited and surname-mangling plain. Maybe the struggle is over!

At least now, the next time someone says, "Uh, Meghan Gur-DON?" or "Mrs. GORDON?" I will know exactly how to handle it.

"Actually, it's GUR-don," I will say, "As in the scientist, Sir John Gurdon."

Perhaps I will laugh modestly before adding, "Yes, distant cousin, you know."

Meghan Cox Gurdon's column appears on Sunday and Thursday. She can be contacted at mgurdon@washingtonexaminer.com.

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