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Small Talk: No rules rule when it comes to spelling names

It doesn’t really fall under the function of the grammar police, nor can it really be fully handed over to the spelling squad. I’m referring to the correct spelling and pronunciation of names. The bottom line, people, is that we are in major disarray. Tsk, tsk.

Mispronouncing a name can be a powerful thing; from making you sound rather dull-witted, to destroying any hope a substitute teacher might have of class control. And it appears there is not one telemarketer out there who can pronounce “Gillette” correctly. Have these people never bought a razor?

Moreover, the “proper” spelling of a name has gone the way of dressing up for the theater or wearing clothes that keep one’s pelvic bones discreetly covered. It came to my attention recently that one can no longer make a solid case for the “correct” way to spell anyone’s given name — or their surname, either, I imagine.

They often ask the customer’s name at the coffee shop, to keep the drinks straight. I reply “Jeeeeeen.” Sometimes they just go phonetic, but sometimes they will ask if it is spelled with a J or a G.

One time I responded, with a smile, “Just remember. The female Jean is always with a J and the male Gene is always with a G.” The young woman gently retorted that people spell their names so screwy these days, you can’t rely on rules like that. I really wanted to argue. I couldn’t.

I want to blame it on the ‘60s, when parents went off the charts naming their children after the moon, the sun and several states of the union. Sadly, that was just a detour. The ‘70s began an explosion of creative spellings like Ambre, Jayceson, Cydnee, Qwyncee and the like.

Then there is always the challenge of those who have joined our ranks from those nations of the world where they have precious little use for vowels. I suppose when a parent names a child, he or she isn’t worrying about that kid traveling the world and having that name verbally butchered. “It was our dear great-auntie’s name, and that is that.”

This sudden revelation isn’t really sudden. I have been a watcher of names all my life and am fascinated by the array and choice of monikers passed down to unsuspecting infants. I even managed to misspell my husband’s middle name on our wedding invitations, courtesy of his mother’s determination to give all her children one-of-a-kind names — and that was way back in the ‘40s.

She dubbed my spouse Lonel Wenn and his twin brother Landa Burns. They both got scheduled for girl’s gym class almost every year, which may have been the only benefit of her creativity.

I like to cite my old German roommate, Roswitha. Few Anglos ever said her name right. Somehow I was one of the few who knew that the German-Dutch “w” is pronounced like our “v.” Don’t people learn anything from old movies? Haven’t they ever eaten at Weinerschnitzel?

But even if we mastered German, something tells me that our struggles will not be over. I could take to wearing a stick-on nametag — “Hi. My name is J-E-A-N,” but I think instead I’ll just move to France.

When a handsome Frenchman pronounces it, I don’t care how they spell it.

Jean (with a J) Gillette is a freelance writer struggling with a French Huguenot name. Contact her at