You’re sitting on a couch or in a bus and there are people around and you’re all talking. Let’s assume you all know each other, so there will be no need for introductions, but you don’t know each other intimately so you’re not talking about like deep level personal stuff or wants or fears (although how often are you talking about that kind of stuff with your friends? Should you be talking about that stuff more often? Do people just have better friends, to be talking about that kind of stuff all the time?). People will bring up things that are copyrighted, and things that have just happened or are going to happen to people within the group or just without—this will happen, though we do not concern ourselves with it. You pass through small talk and progress into some little talk—the kind of discussions that aren’t as evidently clichéd as that it’s cold now or that you’re taking new classes this semester, but are nevertheless pretty boring. Maybe someone is from somewhere different and he or she remarks that it’s hotter there than other places, Arizona, say but “It’s a dry heat,” so it doesn’t actually feel as bad as some other places. Or maybe some class or literally anything else is being talked about and somebody sincerely tells you that “You either really love it or you really hate it, there’s no middle ground.” Or else perhaps something is a squares-rectangles thing, you know?
But in the course of these conversations somebody pronounces something oddly and one or more people call a timeout to discuss the funny word. Perhaps this is the first time the pronouncer has been made aware of this discrepancy, but either way he or she protests and defends it. The word is passed around the group, at which point people remember other words they or people sometimes say funny and an inquisition is begun to root out those that do.
Everyone insists he or she does not have an accent. You do not have an accent, though.
You all begin to say “compass” so much that it no longer even sounds like a word. A few times someone is bothered by the fact that he or she cannot even remember his or her default pronunciation of a word in question. What sounds right? ˈkəmpəs? ˈkämpəs?
Someone with a pickier ear now jumps into stresses. And around is passed the difference between “cream cheese” and “cream cheese,” with accompanying arguments based on which is more fundamental to the foodstuff, the cream or the cheese. More words that bother people by nature of the not-the-way-I-learned-it pronunciations that exist are tossed out and everyone wears themselves out trying to think how they say them. You say umbrella. I say umbrella. You’ve got Rhianna on your side, at least.
After funny pronunciations come funny names, Someone reminds you of Appel Martin or Moonunit Zappa. You bring up Blue Ivy Carter, along with the opinion of whether it was okay to name a kid that and the reflection that that kid will grow up weird or awesome but certainly rich. If me or my friend George are there, you learn that we ate at this restaurant where the old chef had gone to New York to start a cooking website project, but got sidetracked and is now the personal chef of Beyoncé and Jay-Z. There isn’t much of a point to this anecdote, but one or the other of us, whoever’s there, implies that the baby will eat well.
But next, more of urban legend-y names get brought up. It either starts with ghetto names and moves to silly names or goes the other direction, but ghetto names are covered. “La-a” does not go unmentioned. People might tell it as more of a joke, with an enthusiastic approximation of a ghetto voice saying “It’s pronounced Ledasha!” or “The dash don’t be silent!” But more often they talk about the name like it belongs to a real girl, one that is only two or three degrees of separation from the teller. “My aunt works at this daycare and there’s a girl named…” This follows discussions of “Female,” “Male,” “Noname,” “Vagina,” “Shithead,” “Laprecious,” “Dqwahn,” etc. which are generally pronounced in funny ways and then spelled out. Malcolm Gladwell might come up. No one seems to know of the chain email about La-a; either because it’s gotten so popular apart from it, or because the chain letter was derivative from a popularized story. No one includes the “and we let these people vote” that is sometimes found in that chain email.
Once we move to funny combination names, I chime in that Ima Hogg and Ura Hogg were two sisters in Nashville. My mind comforts itself to think that I am above these purveyors of urban myth: my authority comes from my mother, who would not lie about a story just to get laughs. No one is there to tell me how wrong I am. Nor do I think of possible etymologies of the phrase “old wives tale.” No one tries to pass off Michael Hunt or Phillip McCracken as people they know because those are too written, and besides, we’ve all heard them before.