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Pronouncing Ralph Fiennes

Preparing for a London theater outing, the Monitor's language columnist stumbles upon a YouTube clip purporting to help her get the leading man's name right – but maybe not.

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In this Sept. 12 photo, actor-director Ralph Fiennes poses for a portrait to promote the film, 'Coriolanus' during the 36th Toronto International Film Festival in Toronto.

Carlo Allegri/AP

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Kevin Spacey's performance in "Richard III" at London's Old Vic this summer drew raves from the critics. But on the nights that would have worked for us, the show was sold out.

And so for the Shakespeare element of our trip, as we e-mailed back and forth, we turned to "The Tempest," with Ralph Fiennes as Prospero.

In the mad rush to get ready for the airport, though, a lurking question nagged – one that seems to come up in just about every interview the man does: How does Ralph Fiennes pronounce his name?

I thought I'd gotten a grip on this one some years ago – after all, Fiennes has been a big name, pronounceable or otherwise, at least since his performance as a Nazi death camp commander in "Schindler's List."

Fortunately, The New Yorker came to my rescue, with a blog post titled "How Do You Say Ralph Fiennes?" Talk about news you can use.

Writer Ian Crouch was writing in response to another New Yorker piece, on the alleged wonder fruit/drug açai. After discussing the article with friends, he realized – horrors! – he'd been hearing "açai" (uh-SIGH) wrong in his head all along. And to help lead fellow readers out of the mispronunciation wilderness, he pointed them to the Pronunciation Book channel on YouTube.

It's a collection of very short audio clips giving the standard American English pronunciation of all kinds of words. It's evidently targeted for English-language learners. But it's not without value for people whose reading vocabulary is larger than their speaking vocabulary and who don't want to be embarrassed when they start conversing about things they've only read or maybe written about. This group turns out to be most of us, sooner or later.

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