Ian McMillan: Who knew how to pronounce Goethe? Not me.

There's many a slip twixt cup and lip, the old saying goes, and for the readers amongst us there's a variation on that: there's many a slip twixt brain and mouth.

Ian McMillan
Ian McMillan

Let me explain. Sometimes you read a word in a book or the name of a writer and you pronounce it a certain way in your head and that’s okay, because you’re just reading it in the comfort of your own home, but then the problems start when you have to say the word aloud. I’ve embarrassed myself many a time with words that, once wrongly uttered, hung in the air like birds that had suddenly forgotten how to fly. For years I read “sacred” as “scared”, so on gravestones I thought it said Scared to the Memory, which seemed to make a kind of sense because cemeteries can be frightening places.

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When I got older, though, a couple of writers proved to be my undoing. One of them was the classic German novelist Goethe. In my head, obviously, I’d always called him Go-eth, because that’s what it looks like. How on earth was I to know that it was pronounced Gerter? I remember trying to impress a girl at a Freshers’ Week do at North Staffordshire Polytechnic in the distant autumn of 1975 by saying to her, as I whirled my oh-so-bohemian scarf around my chubby neck: “Oh, yes, I’ve read all the works of Go-eth.” I hadn’t, of course, but how was she to know that? We were all pretending to be cleverer than we were; that’s why we were at polytechnic and not university. She looked at me oddly. “Wait there,” she said, and wandered off; I thought she was going to buy me a drink. She came back with two other girls but no drinks. The girls were grinning. “Just tell my friends about that German novelist,” she said, “they’re dying to know.” I launched into a speech that was to haunt me for the rest of my three years at that educational establishment about the mystical, almost magical, values of Go-eth’s prose. Little did I know that the girls I was trying to impress had been to the kind of school where they knew how to pronounce the names of German writers, and for the next three years I was known to a certain element of my course as Go-eth.

I had even more trouble in my first seminar with the French writer and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre; let’s face it, until I went away from Barnsley I didn’t know that he wasn’t called Jean-Paul Satire. I hadn’t read a word he’d written but I just assumed that he wrote satirical books. It’s an easy mistake to make, if you ask me. “Can anyone name an author who writes humorous books?” the lecturer asked. ‘I’m familiar with the oeuvre of Jean-Paul Satire,” I said. “He’s quite funny.” I not only got his name wrong, I called oeuvre “hoover”.

Oh, how the rest of the group laughed. I laughed too, pretending I meant the mistake. Good job nobody asked me about Alexander Solzhenitsyn, that’s all I can say.