What's In A Name? Plenty Of Ways To Make A Mistake

What's In A Name? Plenty Of Ways To Make A Mistake

8:00pm May 16, 2014

When Arizona State University graduates hear their names announced, they have Peter Lafford to thank. It's his job to ensure students' names are pronounced correctly — and it's not always an easy task.

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In the radio business, we spend a lot of time trying to get pronunciations right, especially when it comes to names. We ask our guests how they pronounce theirs before we introduce them.


So, here's a job that we can really appreciate: at college commencements across the country there's someone who reads every graduate's name aloud. We're about to meet one of those people. His name is Peter Lafford.

CORNISH: Lafford, not Laufford.

BLOCK: That's right - Lafford. And, get this, Peter Lafford figures he's read at least 30,000 student names over the last 15 years. NPR's Ted Robbins went to Arizona State University in Tempe to meet him.

TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: After the speeches and before the parties comes that time at commencement when every student steps onto the stage, hears their name, and accepts their degree.

PETER LAFFORD: Asheesh Bagadaj.

ROBBINS: This spring, Peter Lafford is reading names at nine graduations on the ASU campus. This one is the most challenging: it's the Ira Fulton Engineering School, where a lot of graduates have East Indian, Arabic, or Asian names.

LAFFORD: Saga Sampatrau Alham.

ROBBINS: There are two lines at this ceremony, so Lafford takes turns. He has a second or two to ready himself for the next name. That's not enough. Peter Lafford has been practicing for weeks.

LAFFORD: Balasutramanian, and first name Sruti.

ROBBINS: Lafford has degrees in French and he's taught English as a second language. He normally works in the University IT Department. This time of year, he's the graduation name specialist.

LAFFORD: These students, this is their moment in the spotlight. You want to get it right.

ROBBINS: The toughest name he's ever had? That was five years ago and Peter Lafford still remembers it.

LAFFORD: A student from Hawaii, English student major, named Gwendolyn Kamakaokapunanaulaokalani Emsley.

ROBBINS: These days, Peter Lafford has help. Gone are the sweaty index cards with bad handwriting handed to him by the student. Now, there's a computer program - of course - from a tech start-up called Marching Order. It lists names and allows the reader to flag them, easy or medium...

LAFFORD: Joshua Steven Alfred, Catherine Jane Anderson.

ROBBINS: ...or difficult to pronounce. He can put in phonetic pronunciation. He can even ask a student to call a phone number and record their name.

DHEERAJ CHIDAMBARANATHAN: Dheeraj Chidambaranathan.

ROBBINS: Dheeraj Chidambaranathan.

CHIDAMBARANATHAN: Well, I'm not picky about my name. So, I understand it's a little difficult for Americans to pronounce my name.

ROBBINS: Dheeraj Chidambaranathan - I hope I got that right - is graduating with a Master's in computer engineering. He says he answers to almost anything.

CHIDAMBARANATHAN: As soon as I hear a D and a J and an E in between, I'm like, OK, that's me, so.

ROBBINS: He may not care, but his mother, Nagalakshmi, does. She flew from Mumbai to see her son graduate. Dheeraj Chidambaranathan.

NAGALAKSHMI CHIDAMBARANATHAN: Yah. We need that to be pronounced correctly, no?

LAFFORD: Dheeraj Chidambaranathan.

ROBBINS: That was it. Was mom satisfied?

CHIDAMBARANATHAN: They pronounced it very correctly. I was so happy.

ROBBINS: Peter Lafford's happy when he gets it right, too.

LAFFORD: Good, long difficult name and you say it right - I say yes and go on.

ROBBINS: It may seem like a small thing but getting a name right is the least you can do after a family invests years and who knows how much money for a student's education. Ted Robbins, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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