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The way to say those tricky VIP names

Mispronouncing them can be a grievous faux pas.

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In the delicate world of diplomatic protocol, mispronouncing a foreign leader's name ranks among the worst of faux pas. But that is lost on many Americans.

Who can forget Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's verbal gymnastics after being asked by Tim Russert to name the new president of Russia? Most transcripts cleaned it up as "Medvedev – whatever."

Or recall the guffawing last September after a draft of President Bush's speech before the United Nations included the phonetic spellings of several names of foreign places and leaders. Among them: Harare (hah-RAR-ray) and Mugabe (moo-GAH-bee).

At a time when the United States is trying to improve its image abroad, mangling the names of foreign dignitaries does not help. Nowhere is this issue more sensitive than at the United Nations, where diplomats view the mispronunciation of names as a subtle if passive-aggressive form of UN bashing.

Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the Egyptian former secretary-general whose name launched a thousand jokes ("The man so nice they named him twice," David Letterman quipped), wrote in his memoir that he resented Republican Sen. Bob Dole's "mocking pronunciation of my name – Boo-trus, Boo-trus –" during the 1996 presidential campaign. It "sounded like a jeering crowd," he wrote.

Former Secretary-General Kofi Annan's name also was often mispronounced. He told NPR that his surname rhymed with "cannon," but that did not stop most people from pronouncing it "uh-non."


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