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Can You Say Zsa Zsa?


Of the many things I looked forward to upon my return to Louisiana after 45 years away, such as being closer to family and Cajun culture, repossessing the French pronunciation of my name, Jeannine, ranked near the top. I’d never gotten used to the Anglicized variations that people outside Acadiana addressed me by: Janeen, Johneen, Jeenyne, Jeanie, Johnnie, and worse. I envisioned liberation from people having to ask, How do you say that? Could you repeat/spell that, please? What is that, a French name? And my weary responses: Yes, it’s French; I’m from Louisiana. . . It’s okay if you can’t say it the French way. . . I’d prefer Jeannine, but Jeannie is fine.

Unless you grew up speaking French, English speakers have difficulty pronouncing the “zh” sound (think Jacques instead of Jack). We use the sound in a few words like rouge and lesion, but rarely at the beginning of a word or name (genre is an exception). With people of a certain age, I can help out by saying, You know, like Zsa Zsa Gabor. Only that might suggest I consider myself glamorous and sexy and elicit skeptical looks. So mostly I just accept my difficult-to-pronounce name and try to appreciate being spoken to at all.

The many months I lived in Haiti and France were cherished interludes, where everyone knew how to say my name. But living in Portland, Oregon, posed the most difficulties, to the point where I began introducing myself in public settings by my first name, Marie, to avoid the rigmarole. I also adopted that name when I launched my freelance business as an editor. I’d much rather be called Marie than Janeen any day, with all due respect to Judge Jeanine.

So, it saddened me to discover that during the generation of my absence, South Louisiana has lost its familiarity with French sounds. Here, too, most people say my name wrong. It seems that only friends and family members that knew me as a child get it right, along with a few old-timers. In stores and restaurants and on the phone with agencies, I still have to repeat my name if I say it the French way, or spell it, or give an Anglicized version, despite the utility company’s misleading Bonjour greeting (for laughs, try stating your query in French!). Although the state has invested enormous effort to preserve its francophone heritage, the language is rarely spoken. Tragically, the under-fifty crowd is deaf to the phoneme that warms my heart.

To add insult to injury, the locals affix the dubious title Miss before my name, out of courtesy for my age, though I still chafe at being categorized as old by a term of address, especially when used by the good-looking repairman that I briefly fancied. The title also sparks my suspicion that the speaker is patronizing me and probably simplifying their diction for my sake. But I haven’t worked up a good quip to politely ask the person to drop the honorific. Going against social niceties is frowned upon.

Of course, I shouldn’t complain, given that many immigrants with foreign names are forced to adopt an American name to accommodate our linguistic parochialism. My Chinese friend introduces herself as Julie to new clients, but would it be that hard for them to learn her real name, Jiao?

If my mother were still alive, I’d share with her the late-life realization that we shared the same name in different languages. I learned that the Spanish equivalent of my name is Juana, and the diminutive of that is Juanita, my mother’s name. Would knowledge of this shared name have brought us closer together? I’d like to think so, as the passing years deepen my longing to talk to her. A monolingual French speaker until the age of six, my mother had perfect inflection and tone when she pronounced my name. My recollection of it serves as the gold standard against which I compare all deviations. Remembering it brings comfort and peace.