Alex Trebek broke my heart.
I’ve been a big fan of “Jeopardy” going back to the daytime version when Art Fleming was host. Trebek is among my favorite TV guys, even when he had that goofy mustache . Like Walter Cronkite of an earlier generation, good old Alex has always seemed to be the final word on pronunciation. If Alex pronounced a word or a place name a certain way, I was sure that was the right way.
Recently my faith in Alex was dashed. I tuned in at 7 p.m. for “Jeopardy,” which still seems odd to me since the show is on at 7:30 p.m. in the rest of the civilized world. Alex was going along, smoothly as ever, when suddenly it happened. The category was “mountains,” and Alex said the correct question was, “What are the App-a-LAY-chians?”
I was devastated . By all the laws of nature, the word should be pronounced “App-a-LATCH-ians.”
Somewhere in one of the world’s great libraries there is a book titled “Rules on Pronouncing Place Names.” The first rule in the book says, “The correct pronunciation of the name of a place is determined by how the people who live there pronounce its name.” There are no other rules in the book.
I grew up in the Appalachians. (Yes, we wore shoes. No, we didn’t have a moonshine still in our back yard.) This makes me an expert on how to pronounce the word. Alex Trebek grew up in Canada where they have Mounties, Eskimos, and ice hockey, but no Appalachians. If you currently live, or have ever lived, in the Appalachians, you would never say “App-a-LAY-chians.” You’d say “App-a-LATCH-ians.”
In the delightfully named website “Coalfields to Cornfields,” the unnamed blogger argues for correct pronunciation of the word: “If you are from Appalachia then you, without a doubt, say Appa-LATCH-uh. If you say Appa-LAY-shuh you are not only identifying the mountain range but you are also announcing to all that you are not from there. You can say a lot with just that one word…I have not met one person from my precious Appalachian Mountains that says that they are from Appa-LAY-shuh. Not one.”
Southern novelist Sharyn McCrumb takes it up a notch and says the pronunciation used by flatlanders is an insult to the good Appalachian folks: “Appa-LAY-shuh is the pronunciation of condescension, the pronunciation of the imperialists, the people who do not want to be associated with the place, and the pronunciation Appa-LATCH-uh means you are on the side that we trust.”
I always do my best to pronounce the names of places the same way as people who live there. For example, I refer to that wonderful city with the French Quarter and beignets as “Nawlins.” And that great city in Maryland with the beautiful Inner Harbor will forever be called “Ballmir.”
Try as I will, I cannot pronounce “Boston” like the natives do. My vocal chords simply can’t produce the proper tone. I have learned, however, to speak Boston when talking about my car keys. The pronunciation is the same as when you’re talking about what soldiers wear: “I lost my khakis.”