I’m really sorry, but I have to drag Alex Trebek.
But first, some history. Since 1984, the beloved host of “Jeopardy!” has been a staple of daytime television.
Not unlike many kids, watching “Jeopardy!” — and most importantly, yelling out the answers in the form of questions — and other game shows was a pastime for the whole family; specifically for my dad and me. My parents are Nigerian immigrants of the Igbo tribe who emphasized and emulated the values of family, culture and education my whole life.
Watching Trebek rattle off those clues while battling my dad for the quickest return of correct answers was comforting, and an assurance that I was smart (I was too young to realize that the contestants’ demographics rarely matched my own, but that’s a story for another time).
I was on the receiving end of role of “Jeopardy!” in “encouraging, celebrating and rewarding knowledge” that eventually won the show a Peabody Award in 2011. What impressed and moved me the most was Trebek’s propensity for pronouncing non-Western terms, names and places with the finesse of someone trying to make a point.
That brainy man goes out of his way to almost over-pronounce everything from “La Rochefoucauld” (French) to “Reichsmarschall” (German); with matching accents (I can’t confirm they’re perfect accents, but this is all to say that he goes in) to boot. Viewers, pre-internet and now, knee-deep in the Twitterverse, have heard this from Trebek and have even poked fun at him for it. I believe this to be a sign of respect; the way you make fun of someone you love who nerds out on any subject that brings them joy.
And he earned my respect too; it was as if the famed host was telling people that proper pronunciation matters; the people and cultures behind these terms matter.
That was huge for me. My name is Ngozi Nwangwa. Those of you who have Nigerian friends, lovers or acquaintances or are Igbo Nigerians yourself may know how to tackle that one. My teachers growing up did not. A lot of my friends also did not and, like other frustrated people, I just let the mispronunciations slide for a year or 10.
Screwing up foreign names is nothing new. It sucks and I’ve experienced it since elementary school. When a teacher, a secondary authority figure in mine and every kid’s life for likely more than a decade, pronounced my name wrong, even once, I felt branded with “wrong” or “other.”
The main identifying factor of my personhood didn’t fit; my name seemed like it physically couldn’t fit in people’s mouths, so they spat it out like bad food. I had to swallow their regurgitation over and over.
Not until I was old enough to embody the hard-earned confidence of Emmy-winning Nigerian (Igbo) “Orange Is the New Black” actress Uzoamaka Aduba, was I able to contextualize the term “microaggression.” I had been thinking myself a burden on other people’s ears and minds for most of my life and didn’t have a way to explain it.
Aduba’s pride in her name, after struggling with the idea of changing it to something phonetically “easier,” partly stemmed from her mom having told her, and I’m paraphrasing: Ever notice how the same folks who butcher African names are the same people who somehow, can say names like “Tchaikovsky” and “Dostoyevsky” like a buttery piece of cake? Yeah, they will say your name, say your name, in the name of Destiny’s Child.
I’m now a grad student in my 30s who can pay for her own Netflix account, and though I use my American nickname, Shirley, a lot, I’ve been more inclined to offer Ngozi in professional settings. It is with this blessed, shining new armor that I sat myself in front of my laptop recently to binge-watch specially released “classic” episodes of “Jeopardy!” My old practices were in play as I streamed and streamed. Yelling out many more wrong “What is … ?” and “Who is … ?” question-answers than I expected. But I continued on.
And then it happened: Alex Trebek mispronounced “Igbo,” the name of the people of my blood, saying the “g” when the “g” should be silent.
The record of my mind began spinning out and then scratched hard. Cue nails on a chalkboard and glass-breaking post-operatic high C. I just kept thinking to myself ― do European and Eastern and other regions merit more attention than African nations? Than Nigeria?
I was instantly taken back to being a young kid, to a weird place. I had to chill out. Alex Trebek isn’t Mrs. So and So and, although I expected better from the world traveler, he’s still a white dude who clearly isn’t African. Hearing that dastardly hard G struck the most discordant tone in me, so I’m here to set the record straight for $400, Alex.
Answer: What is ee-boh?
Igbo is pronounced ee-boh. You don’t say the “g” sound, like it was mispronounced twice.
I don’t know why the “Jeopardy!” phonics master mucked up Igbo. I’m a bit dejected and maybe I’ll be alone in feeling this way outside of my family (I tweeted my chagrin and my sister commented, “The hard g 🤮”). Besides, there are more representatives than ever of my actual culture, including podcasts like “Jesus and Jollof” hosted by “Insecure”’s Yvonne Orji (who is Igbo) and Luvvie Ajayi (who is Yoruba, but she’s down and knows the life of the name pronunciation struggle), actors like Uzo Aduba and Cynthia Orivo, and many others.
The return to childhood times that watching old television or movies conjures has a whiplash effect. It’s a wild ride and sometimes you are left with a really sore neck and think, wait, I don’t remember this hurting so much — when did I get this old?
Since this “Jeopardy!” session, I’ve vacillated between this stinging feeling and an “OH, C’MON!” kind of disposition. I’ll get over it and hopefully I can just skip over the mispronounced “Igbo” clues before Trebek reads them (but he’s so FAST, though!). In the meantime, to cope, I went to the only dude who can actually give me the answers ― answers I need.
When I told him about the “Jeopardy!” gaffe, he laughed and said the following:
“You know, Alex Trebek is really, very good with pronunciation. I’m not surprised that he made that mistake; most people who are not from there do that. He just needs to do more research.”
Did you hear that, Alex?