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July 23rd, 2008

Pronouncing Beijing / having said that

by Barbara Wallraff

James Newton, of Middleton, Wis., writes: “Who put the ‘beige’ in Beijing? Although foreign correspondents for broadcast networks have no trouble with the letter ‘j,’ the anchors are increasingly using the ‘beige’ pronunciation. The first person I heard use it was Dan Rather. Did he invent this pronunciation?”

Dear James: Goodness, no. “Beige-ing” is the old pronunciation -- older, at least, than “Bay-jing.” However, before we said “Beige-ing,” we said (and wrote) “Peking.” Before that, we had “Peiping.” With each change, we’ve come a bit closer to the way Beijingers say the name.

The eternal question about foreign words and names is how hard to try to approximate the pronunciation used by people who live there. Once upon a time, English-speakers made up their own names for places -- for instance, “Australia” (a name derived from the Latin for “south”) and “New York.” Or else they cheerfully mispronounced existing names -- for instance, “Japan” for “Nippon” (which means “the land of the rising sun” in Japanese).

As we’ve become less ethnocentric and better-traveled, we’ve paid more attention to what the locals call a place and how they pronounce the name. That’s true, at any rate, for some places -- though you don’t catch anyone insisting that we should pronounce ” “Paree,” the way the French do, or rename Rome “Roma” because that’s what Romans call it.

Really, the only standards we have for place-names -- as for other words -- are our own. Using a conspicuously un-
English pronunciation for a foreign word or name in the middle of an English sentence is both awkward and pretentious. We needn’t try to sound Chinese when we say “Beijing.” But if we want to sound like alert, contemporary North Americans, we should sound, rather than slur, the “j.”

Toni Keim, of Chelsea, Mich., writes: “A few weeks ago I read in your column that you don’t approve of the expression ‘having said that.’ For days, I hung my head in shame because it is an expression that I frequently use. As I thought about substituting ‘however’ or ‘nevertheless,’ as you recommended, I realized that I use ‘having said that’ to mean ‘I’m going to contradict myself now.’ It is to let my listener know that I am of two (or more) minds about something -- either that or to let them know that I’m a flake. The terms ‘however’ and ‘nevertheless’ don’t convey that flakiness. Is there ever a time when ‘having said that’ can be used correctly?”

Dear Toni: If you want people to think you’re flaky, don’t bother using correct English! But maybe what you really want is to sound more relaxed than “however” and “nevertheless” suggest. If so, may I suggest you try “Then again” or “On the other hand”?

If you insist on “having said that,” the phrase isn’t wrong as long as you follow it with “I.” For instance, “Having said that, I think you have a point” is OK. But “Having said that, your point is interesting” is an example of the dreaded dangling participle, because the point didn’t say anything -- you did.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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