The definition of hell is “reading out loud in class and coming to a word you don’t know.” (Don’t verify this with Merriam-Webster, just trust me.)
Now, I understand that people’s names in particular are not “difficult” so much as “a result of the linguistic imperialism in which we toil.” But one time when I was fourteen, I had to try my hand at pronouncing “Cthulhu” in front of the class, and it was embarrassing for everyone involved. I think I said “KUTHEL-hew” and then just didn’t speak again for four years.
To shield you from a similar fate, I’ve collected a handful of literary names you might encounter in your English class travails, along with pronunciations that are widely considered to be correct.
Smaug from The Hobbit
Instead of “smog,” it’s supposed to be “smowg.” Think “loud.” Throw an “ow” in there like someone punched you in the face mid-word.
Given that this is where we got the word “quixotic,” it certainly SEEMS like we should be saying “Don KWIKS-oat,” and it’s just plain confusing that we’re not. At least, not in the United States. The U.K. pronounces it that way, but in the U.S., we say “Don key-HO-tay,” which is closer to the original Spanish. In France, they throw all of this out the window and just say what sounds like “Donkey-shot,” because ofcourse they do.
If you don’t speak French, everything in Les Misérables is a phonetic disaster because Victor Hugo hated high school students and you in particular. But if you can say “lay MIZZ-uh-ROB,” you’ll be causing actual, physical pain to Francophones both near and far, but you’ll get by just fine in honors English.
I myself pronounced “Eyre” like “eerie” for a length of time that is frankly embarrassing. Mostly in my head, but I’m sure once or twice out loud. Say it like “air.”
Godot from Waiting for Godot
According to this article in The New York Times, there is no right way to pronounce “Godot,” and anyone who says otherwise has chosen the wrong hill to die on. “Guh-DOE” is acceptable, as is “GOD-oh.” Samuel Beckett’s nephew insists the playwright himself pronounced it “go-doe.” But while there may not be a right way to say it, I think we can all agree there is a wrong way, and that is “GO-dot.”
This is just one of those names no one is pronouncing correctly and it seems highly unlikely that anyone will call you out on it. That said, Lord Byron intended it to be pronounced “Don JEW-un” (in the poem, he makes it rhyme with things like “threw on” and “ruin” and “true one”) instead of the oft-mispronounced “Don Wahn.”
Éowyn from Lord of the Rings
Whenever I have cause to say “Éowyn” out loud, someone will invariably correct me, only they always say a word that sounds to my dumb, unlearned ears like exactly what I just said. I will say, “Éowyn?” and they will shake their head vigorously and say, “Éowyn,” and I will say, “Oh, okay. So Éowyn,” and they will correct me with a frantic “ÉOWYN.” (Full disclosure: I also have this problem with the name “Craig.”)
According to Tolkien himself, there’s a diphthong in there. You should be saying the name with two syllables, not three. So like “ear-win” without the R sound.
Daenerys Targaryen from A Song of Ice and Fire
I hope to God you’re not reading A Song of Ice and Fire as a class, but I’m throwing this in here anyway because if you want to be part of the cultural milieu, chances are you’re going to run into this problem eventually. Say it with me: “deh-NAIR-iss.”
Hercule Poirot from the Agatha Christie stories
I took a lot of French, so I know how to pronounce this now, but there was a time when my understanding of the pronunciation of “Hercules” made this absolutely unwieldy. Say it like “air-CULE pwah-ROE” if you want your teachers to like you and your fellow students to care not one bit.
Samuel Pepys was a diarist who wrote about things like drinking tea and sleeping with women who were not his wife. Left to my own devices, I would probably pronounce his last name like “PEP-iss.” But that is not the way. It is “peeps.”
d’Artagnan from The Three Musketeers
It’s pronounced “dahr-TAN-yen” if you’re taking AP Lit in the United States and you have a rhotic accent, but I’m sure they spruce it up in places that don’t (“dah-TAHN-yon”).
Circe from The Odyssey (and Greek mythology in general)
Do not be one of those people who thinks this is pronounced monosyllabically, like “SIRS” with a soft S and a hard stop. Let me reiterate that: don’t be me in ninth grade. It’s “SIR-see.” (Although “KIR-kee” is also acceptable in Greece.)
Cthulhu from The Call of Cthulhu
Don’t make my mistakes. Don’t have my regrets. Say “kuh-THOO-loo.”