Why is my name so hard to spell?

I just gave the first exam of this semester in cell biology. I have a tradition of making the first question of the first exam an easy, obvious gimme…and here’s the first question this year.

I skimmed through the exams and quickly discovered that several students gave the wrong answer.

I’ll assume that they grossly overanalyzed the question — I said it wasn’t a trick question, which obviously means it was, or that there was some subtle twist hinted at in the phrasing, or something. Or that my last name is some arcane mystical phrase that shifts in the eyes and minds of its beholder, and that if any ever perceived its true nature they would go mad.


  1. rockwhisperer says

    Maybe it depends on your accent. Were one of my rural Southeastern Minnesota relatives saying it to me, Mrrrz would indeed seem like the most reasonable transcription. This was a secret test to see if they read the syllabus, wasn’t it?

  2. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    You missed using Meijers, a “Megalomart” (King of the Hill reference) retail chain started in Michigan, competing with well known bottom feeder chain.

  3. nomdeplume says

    Hmm, I can imagine in the stress of the first exam by the famous PZ thinking that (a) “I don’t do trick questions” might be a trick, and (b) that the way you spell your name in the question might be just a random choice, or perhaps an example of the wrong spelling you normally get, and the student should realise this and choose answer (b). Remember, if there is a possible way to over think the answer to an exam question then a student will find it.

  4. blf says

    I’ve heard of students getting their own name wrong

    When I was learning to rite I’ve often gets mine own fist name rong. Actually, it’s a common misspelling, which I now sometimes get from some of my colleagues (Ingerlish is not their first language). Not helped by there being several different homophonous spellings (which is also a problem with my surname).

    And speaking of muddied waters when growing up… In elementary school, one of my teachers had the same surname as me. The confusion I can now still recall was with the school library; the policy was to sign out borrowed books with your surname and the teacher’s surname (and room?). That meant both my teacher and me would sign out books identically… eventually the library asked both(?) of us to include our first initial(? name?).

  5. uusuzanne says

    When I was teaching, along with two other faculty, large sections of intro physics, we had mass exams. Seating was tight so we made several versions of the test. But if the different versions were different colors, the students would know who to cheat from. So one year I made the different versions with different spellings of one professor’s name (a Germanic name with many consonants and odd vowel combinations). Just to add to the fun, I also had different colors, but each version came in all four colors. Glad I retired and don’t have to deal with this any more!

  6. whheydt says

    I’ve never had that much trouble with people being unable to spell my last name, but I’ve had problems with people who can’t pronounce it. The usual reason it gets spelled correctly is that I give it to them at least partially phonetically. (Of course, those that only hear it, usually can’t spell it.)

    My wife was happy to change her name when we married because people couldn’t spell or pronounce here last name…Jones.

    Our daughter cheerfully changed here name when she got married and then discovered that people can’t spell or pronounce…Creelman.

  7. cartomancer says

    My students rarely have problems with the spelling of my name. The accounts department that pays my salary, on the other hand, seems to concoct a new misspelling every time they need to communicate with me in writing. Usually they get one or both of my initials wrong as well, just for good measure. Needless to say months went by before they first hit upon the magic combination that allowed the bank to recognise their good intentions and actually put the money in my account. I don’t know how they decide how to misspell my name each time. My guess is that it involves a poorly printed ouja board and a bad case of the tremors.

  8. blf says

    … it involves a poorly printed ouja board and a bad case of the tremors.

    New-fangled technobabble gimmicky… stick to clay tablet and reed stylus, or for that more professional look, bronze chisel and stone slab; for the more artistic types, nothing beats ash and cave walls. And just get rid of this “alphabet” malarkey!

  9. kestrel says

    My first name is difficult to spell and pronounce. Even my father spelled it wrong on occasion… I can sympathize.

    Back in the day I knew a woman who had a movie rental store. When interviewing prospective employees, she would give them a simple task: walk around the store looking at the movies, find 3 movies they had seen, and write the 3 names down on a piece of paper. Sounds simple enough. Many apparently could not copy the name of the movie off the cover, and would spell it wrong. Some wrote down movies she did not have in her store. Some wrote down the wrong amount of movies, etc. It was a useful test for her to determine if she wanted that person working for her or not.

  10. whheydt says

    Re: cartomancer @ #11…
    There used to be a story that went around in programming circles that the NYC payroll system had a “sanity check” for names. One of the rules was that name had to have at least one vowel. Then the city hired someone with the last name of “Ng.” Apparently, it took them months of writing his payroll checks by hand before the system was fixed so the system would write the checks without complaining.

  11. whheydt says

    Re: kestrel @ #14…
    SF author Poul Anderson’s mother insisted that Poul did not pronounce his name correctly.

  12. cvoinescu says

    It was a useful test for her to determine if she wanted that person working for her or not.

    Also weeds out those pesky people with dyslexia.

    Still, discrimination aside, her method beats interview questions about manhole covers and piano tuners.

  13. archangelospumoni says

    Former music student here with a slightly related one:
    One of the music classes included the structure of the human voice-originating parts. Must know. The professor told us right up front that if anybody ever spelled it “vocal cHords” they would get an F for the entire class. Bang. F. That’s it. We believed him and he looked pretty serious and made his point.
    Watch for this one and you’ll see many writers get it wrong.

  14. John Harshman says

    Just so you know, the proper possessive of Myers is Myers’s. That’s probably what unnerved the students.

  15. says

    You are using the Chicago Manual of Style and should be shamed. The AP style manual recommends you only use “‘s” if the second “s” is to be pronounced.

    Example: it’s “in Jesus’ name”, not “In Jesus’s name”. If you think I’m not going to follow the protocol established by Our Lord and Savior, think again, heathen.

  16. Callinectes says

    If your name is hard enough to spell that it suffices as a legitimate exam question then it is encouraging that some of your students allow for the possibility that you are also getting it wrong from time to time, including in said exam question.

  17. robro says

    Example: it’s “in Jesus’ name”, not “In Jesus’s name”.

    I know people who would say “in Jesus-es name”, although they might write it “in Jesus’ name”. Very few people know the rules, and if they do, they usually only know one set of rules…there are different one’s.

    My favorite usage guide is the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage because its the only one that notes when a rule is an arbitrary invention, usually of some late-19th century grammarian.

  18. dangerousbeans says

    That’s the sort of question I would deliberately answer wrong
    Maybe some of your students are the same

  19. eleanor says

    For possible addition to your list, I offer the surname of a guy I used to know, spelt Meyjes (pron. Myers).

  20. blf says

    Shakespeare wrote his name several different ways.

    None of them Shakespeare.

    That we know of… there’s only six known surviving handwritten signatures considered genuine, each with a different spelling. Actually, that’s not quite true, two of them use Shakspere, but with a different spelling of his own first name (making all six surviving handwritten signatures different).

    None of this suggests the man from Stafford-upon-Avon didn’t write the material he’s justifiably famous for. He did. He just didn’t seem to — fairly common at the time — use consistent spellings.

  21. HappyHead says

    I used to do something like that on tests too, but in the “fill in the blank” section, and I’ve had students get their own name wrong. (Specifically, they wrote the student ID number of the person beside them, since that’s what that person’s question was asking… another wrote “blue” instead of their student ID.)

    Sometimes, you just have to accept that 100% of the class getting a question right, no matter how easy it is, is impossible.

  22. jack16 says

    Vaguely recall the first Captain Marvel (Binder brothers?) series had a character named “Mxyzptlk”

  23. Akira MacKenzie says

    I feel you’re pain PZ. My real name is German in origin that has an “ie” in it that should be pronounced as a long-E sound, but is constantly mispronounced with a long-I. I usually shrug it off, but it can get irritating.

  24. nathanieltagg says

    You’re not alone. My next-door colleague routine gives this question on his astronomy exams:

    What was Albert Einstein’s first name?
    a) Alfred
    b) Albert
    c) Allen
    d) Alowishus

    Approximately 10% of the class gets it wrong every year.

    A couple of years ago, we suggested seeing if the experiment could be carried further.

    “You have a 2-gallon bucket in one hand and a 3-gallon bucket in the other. How many buckets do you have?”

    Surprisingly, even OUR students could all answer this one correctly. We were grateful to know that was, in fact, a question too simple for all the students.

  25. steve1 says

    My 8th grade science teachers name was also Mr. Myers. I learned some biology in his class. I took an elective with him.where we dissected a worm, frog, crayfish and of course the fetal pig. I’m pretty sure i would have got that question correct.

  26. Kip Williams says

    I’d be surprised if Mxyzptlk had shown up in the Fawcett publishing universe, but stranger things and all that.

    Oh, and “Golda Meir.”

  27. Rob Grigjanis says

    Akira @32: It’s not just your real name that’s mispronounced. The ‘z’ in your pseudonymous surname was originally a yogh, and should be pronounced more like a ‘j’.

    At least you’re not a Grigjanis ;-)

  28. says

    My chosen post transition name is Rhiannon, for a reason that pre-dates Fleetwood Mac. And yet people constantly say or spell the mediocre pop singer’s name. Now I just say Rhi when I meet new people and explain the full spelling when they’re someone I want to know well.

  29. LorrieAnne Miller says

    My son is dyslexic and that question would probably confuse him. Tests are a real problem for him and he does tend to overanalyze simple questions on them. Super simple questions like that are very confusing as it doesn’t make sense why someone would ask that. You might take note of who got this wrong and then watch to see if you notice signs of a learning disability as you further interact with them.

  30. mountainbob says

    That’s a question sometimes seen on “exams” for choir volunteers: What is the name of Fred Schmuck our music director?” Volunteer being so hard to come by, it’s an attempt at levity and inclusivity. Probably doesn’t always work.