The Pronouncer: How Do You Say ‘Napolitano’?

In the broadcast business, we have these things called “pronouncers.” They’re phonetic guides to the correct pronunciation of the names of people or places. For instance, the name of the chief justice of the California Supreme Court, Tani Cantil-Sakauye, might well be rendered (since there’s room for variation among reasonable pronouncer writers) TAH-nee kahn-TEEL SAHK-uh-OO-ay. The syllables are hyphenated, and the ones in all caps are stressed. If you do these right, they’re a great help to the hosts, anchors and reporters who get all the hate mail when a name is mispronounced.

Of course, you have to know how to say a name or word before you can write a pronouncer. And sometimes what you think you know can get in the way.

Take the name “Janet Napolitano.” She’s the new president of the University of California and was interviewed on last Friday’s edition of “KQED Newsroom.”

Absolutely everyone knows how her last name is pronounced, right? The great majority of on-air presenters agree: It’s nuh-pah-lit-TAH-noh. That was my assumption, too, until I ran into a script earlier this year that had turned that next-to-last syllable from “TAH” to “TAN” — nuh-pah-lit-TAN-noh. Like her name was Wisconsin-ese in origin instead of Italian. I thought, “Really?” A little research showed that on-air folks in Arizona, who I’ll credit with knowing how their former governor’s name is pronounced almost always say it with that “TAN” syllable.

The question has come up several times since, including when Napolitano was about to assume her post at UC. One of our reporters asked how we should say the name, and I gave him my recently enlightened view of the matter. He seemed dubious, and called the university to double-check. Someone at the UC president’s office said he was “99 percent sure” it was “nuh-pah-lit-TAH-noh,” not “TAN-noh.”

Oh, great, I thought. Nothing hobgoblins my little mind like foolish inconsistency.

So I went in search of what I thought would be unimpeachable evidence from a reasonably authoritative source. After a short search, I found it: video of Napolitano from the 2008 Democratic National Convention. That’s the video at the top of the post. The big payoff comes in the first 13 seconds or so.

So, there you go. Hit that second “A” in her last name like you’re a character in “Fargo.” And here’s Napolitano again, talking to “Newsroom” senior correspondent Scott Shafer:

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Dan Brekke

Dan Brekke has worked in media ever since Nixon's first term, when newspapers were still using hot type. He had moved on to online news by the time Bill Clinton met Monica Lewinsky. He's been at KQED since 2007, is an enthusiastic practitioner of radio and online journalism and will talk to you about absolutely anything. Reach Dan Brekke at dbrekke@kqed.org.

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