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A Lesson in Lexicography

I grew up in a Midwestern Scandinavian enclave where pretty much everybody knew how to pronounce my last name (it’s AH-mund-sun). It was not until I moved to Virginia that I realized my surname was apparently both exotic and hard to pronounce. It led to some interesting times in doctors’ offices (“You talking to ME?”). But mostly, people genuinely wanted to get the name right.

So it was not until I got to the General Assembly that I understood how a consistent mispronunciation of that name could send a clear message. I won my election by a very narrow victory margin, and the House had flipped control for the first time since Reconstruction in that same election. Everything changed in Richmond.

The new Speaker, who hailed from a part of the Commonwealth where he seemed to have no trouble pronouncing Botetourt (BOTT-uh-tott) County, could not seem to master my name. “AY-mus-son,” he sometimes said. Or “ay-MUNN-son.” Or . . . well, you get the idea.

I corrected him some, but there’s only so much you can do when you are a junior member of the minority party. The Clerk corrected him and made a point of pronouncing my name correctly when he was calling member names. Still, the message was clear: it just wasn’t worth it for him to learn how to pronounce my name. Over time, it really stung. But it also led me to a second reaction: I was determined to give him even more time to learn how to pronounce my name. So even though my district got redrawn pretty significantly in the next redistricting, I worked extra hard and won re-election.

I think about that experience now as Georgia Sen. David Perdue has famously mispronounced Kamala Harris’s first name. Several times. (No links here but it is all over the Internet.) Here’s the thing. Yes, he has sent a message to his audience that Sen. Harris is not quite “one of us.” But he has also sent that same message to hundreds of thousands of other Georgians with unusual last names: they aren’t really welcome, either. And my guess is that they won’t forget. (They've already started voting in Georgia, for those of you keeping score at home.)

My former colleague Chris Saxman always reminds elected officials that politics is a game of addition and not subtraction. Find ways to bring people in, he wisely advises.

Sen. Perdue has now issued one of those “I’m sorry if anyone was offended” apologies – not an apology at all. I have another piece of advice for him: if he can’t learn how to pronounce Kamala Harris’s first name, why doesn’t he try referring to her by a title I’m pretty sure he does know how to pronounce. He could just call her “Senator Harris.”

UPDATE: I should note that the Speaker in 2000 was removed from office for infractions

much more serious than mispronouncing the name of a freshman Democrat. His successor, Bill Howell, is an utterly decent man (with whom I have policy disagreements, to be sure). He pointedly pronounced my name correctly every time he got the chance.

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