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Pauline Nevins: You say “tomayto and I say tomahto…”

This is an open letter to Nigel Thrift, vice chancellor and president of the University of Warwick in England. Mr. Thrift was in Placer County recently providing details on a proposed 6,000-student Warwick University on 600 acres west of Roseville in Placer County. I hope he’s still in the area so he can read this.

Dear Vice Chancellor/President Thrift:

May I say your surname is perfect for someone who is looking for investors for the new University of Warwick proposed for construction in Placer County in 2016 — although you may have the money part covered. I know nothing about the financial side of this project. Also, your Christian name (or should I say “first name”), is pretty cool, too — very upper-class English. How many Americans are named “Nigel?”

Actually, this letter has nothing whatsoever to do with your nice name. I was born and raised about 50 miles east of Coventry where your Warwick University is located. I know it’s not news to you, or to most English and Americans, that though we mostly understand each other’s language — facilitated by American films in Great Britain, and British programs on American public television — there are still some words and pronunciations that cause confusion.

Since I am correcting him, and he is not correcting me, I think my current husband will be my last one.

In my teens I dated an American serviceman who was stationed in England. He would become my first, but not my last husband.

“Frank the Yank,” as my cheeky siblings called him, was a bit odd. Even I, a self-centered teenager at the time, managed to discern this. However, I continued to go out with him. I told myself Frank’s behavior was just a cultural thing, something to be understood — like his Southern accent. One of his many quirks was to correct my pronunciation.

“Nestlés chocolate is American,” he announced one rainy afternoon as he sat on our sofa in the living room munching a chocolate Aero bar, “and it’s pronounced “Neslees” not “Nessels.”

He also said I pronounced “aluminium” incorrectly. “It’s not al-you-min-i-um,” he told me mockingly. “It’s a-loo-min-um.”

As I’m sure you’ve experienced during your illustrious career, this English versus American pronunciation is typically dealt with in a lighthearted way, and has been fodder for fun between the two nationalities. You’ve probably heard about the American serviceman whose smile disappeared when he found out that his British girlfriend’s request to “knock me up in the morning,” referred to a wake-up-call knock on her door. I hope I’m not being too familiar.

I don’t know if you’re renting a car while you’re visiting Placer County, but if you are, know that Americans have a different word for the hinged cover over the engine. They call it “the hood.” If you travel to Amish country, and were having car trouble, asking a mechanic “to look under the bonnet,” might make you seem slightly deranged.

My current husband told me a story of how he learned the name of another British car part.

He and a couple of other American servicemen stationed in England, were walking towards the Running Buck, a huge bar in the town of Ipswich in East Anglia, a few miles from their assigned airbase. The English bartender, and avid hunter, affectionately known as Dickie Bird, was walking with them.

“I have to remember I have a bunny in my boot,” Dickie Bird said — thinking out loud.

My husband responded with, “A bunny in your boot? You can’t have a bunny in your boot.”

“I bet you five pounds I do,” Dickie Bird replied.

“You’re on,” said my husband.

“Follow me,” said Dickie Bird, and led the group back to the car park. Dickie Bird lifted the lid on the trunk of his car, and there, on the pages of the News of the World, lay a dead rabbit.

“There’s the bunny in the boot,” said Dickie Bird with his hand out.

But getting back to the University of Warwick.

I’d like to suggest to you that when the time comes to develop an entrance exam for the new college, that you give priority to the following pass/fail oral test. Before any one of the projected 6,000 students set foot on the campus of the University of Warwick, Roseville, they must correctly pronounce, “The University of Warwick.” I have no doubt that 100 percent of those applying for college entry will be able to pronounce the first two words: “The” and “University.” It’s the third word, “Warwick” that will trip them up!

I’ve heard Warwick pronounced by television newscasters as “Worwick,” — and “Warewick.”

The correct pronunciation, as you and I know Sir, is Wha (as in “what”) –rick, — Warick. I would be willing to sit on the oral examination board.

I cannot end this letter without mentioning the one mispronunciation that manages to make me laugh outloud no matter how often I hear it.

After 40-plus years of marriage, and numerous elocution lessons, my husband still manages to mispronounce Worcestershire, as in Worcestershire Sauce. He pronounces it phonetically, “Woor-cest-er-shire.” The correct pronunciation, as you and I know Sir, is the British way – “Woo-ster-sheer.”

Since I am correcting him, and he is not correcting me, I think my current husband will be my last one.

With the utmost sincerity,

Pauline Nevins lives in Colfax.


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