Anchor hits nerve with Nevada’s mispronunciation
RENO – Brian Williams was looking ahead to Nevada’s presidential caucuses during a broadcast of the “NBC Nightly News” last week when he struck a raw nerve.
The anchor mispronounced the state’s name as “Nuh-VAH-duh,” prompting a flurry of phone calls and e-mails from angry Nevadans who demanded he utter it as they do, with the “a” like in “cat” – “Nuh-VAD-uh.”
Williams was just the latest among countless public figures to unwittingly become caught up in a controversy dating to the Silver State’s founding during the Civil War.
ABC’s George Stephanopoulos was booed for saying “Nuh-VAH-duh” when he moderated a presidential candidates forum in Nevada last year. And President Bush and Sen. John Kerry both came under fire during the 2004 campaign for botching the name.
For Nevadans who complain their home is mispronounced by outsiders more often than any other state, Williams’ slip was “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Guy Rocha, the state archivist who is leading a crusade to get the rest of the nation to adopt the local usage.
Westerners generally pronounce the state’s name correctly, but others inadvertently show disrespect when they can’t get it right, Rocha said.
“This onslaught has got Nevadans to the breaking point and they’re not going to take it anymore,” he said. “You need to pronounce it the way we do.”
The issue resurfaced at a time when the nation’s fastest-growing state is gaining influence in national politics and more attention from presidential candidates because of its early caucuses on Saturday.
The “Daily Show with Jon Stewart” featured a segment that poked fun at the flap this week. Chris Matthews explained the “correct” pronunciation on his MSNBC political show. And Robert Siegel, host of National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered,” corrected two correspondents who called it Nuh-VAH-duh.
Leading into an NBC story aimed at clearing the air Wednesday evening, Williams said: “We haven’t always said it (Nevada) the same way and there is a correct way.”
The story by reporter George Lewis about “an entire state of confusion” concluded:
“Memo to all those political candidates trying to win votes in the Silver State: It’s Nuh-VAD-uh, not Nuh-VAH-duh. … According to the official NBC Handbook of Pronunciations first published during World War II, it’s Nuh-VAD-uh.”
Representatives of ABC, CBS, CNN and Fox said in the future they also will pronounce the state’s name as Nevadans do.
“We try very hard to get pronunciations right,” CBS spokeswoman Sandy Genelius said. “Our understanding is the correct pronunciation is Nuh-VAD-uh.”
Presidential candidates seem to be catching on to how sensitive Nevadans are about it. Unlike Bush and Kerry, no major candidate has mangled the pronunciation this campaign season, although the narrator doing a voice over for one of Republican Duncan Hunter’s radio ads running in Reno this week got it wrong.
Many candidates have used the issue as an ice breaker.
“It’s great to be back in Nevada, Nevada, Nevada, Nevada, Nevada,” Republican John McCain told a Reno crowd, pronouncing the name each time as locals do.
The state Democratic Party took no chances, sending all its candidates a “Welcome to Nevada” guide that included the proper pronunciation.
“I’m not sure it costs candidates votes, but Nevadans notice a mispronunciation of our state’s name right away,” said Kirsten Searer, spokeswoman for the state party.
While disputes also have surfaced over the pronunciation of Oregon, Colorado, Missouri and Illinois, the friction in Nevada appears unique for its level of intensity, said Josh Guenter, pronunciation editor for Merriam-Webster Inc. based in Springfield, Mass.
“People in other states have become upset, but I’ve never heard of a national flap over it like this,” Guenter said.
His company’s dictionaries note how Nevadans pronounce the name as well as how Nuh-VAH-duh is used “chiefly by outsiders.” But it makes no judgment as to which is correct, Guenter said.
Williams and others “pronounced it Nuh-VAH-duh because they learned it that way,” Guenter said. “They just happened not to be from that place. To be angry or upset over their pronunciation does not strike me as reasonable.”
Daniel Enrique Perez, professor of Spanish at the University of Nevada, Reno, said Easterners’ mispronunciation of Nevada actually is closer to the original Spanish pronunciation. Nevada derives from the Spanish verb “nevar,” which means “to snow,” and was possibly Anglicized by 19th century miners, he said.
“I don’t think one way of pronouncing it is more correct than the other,” Perez said. “We have to allow for cultural variations. People will always pronounce it differently and no one has the right to police how it is pronounced.”
But Rocha insists locals should be the final arbiters of how a state or town’s name is pronounced. He notes how the towns of Nevada in Iowa, Missouri and Texas are pronounced with a long “a” – Nuh-VAY-duh.
“It makes my blood boil when they get it wrong,” said Linda Wicksten, a lifelong Sparks resident who grew up on a ranch. She has written to “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek and the producers of “CSI: Las Vegas” to complain about their mispronunciation.
“It’s like chalk screeching on a blackboard. It’s a matter of pride and principle to real Nevadans,” Wicksten said.
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