By RICH FOLEY
Nationally, our presidential candidates have recently been spending their time debating the fate of Sesame Street’s Big Bird, but in Missouri, those running for statewide office have been tussling with an even more critical issue—How do you pronounce the name of the state?
The New York Times recently covered the controversy, finding that most candidates have a favored pronunciation except for incumbent governor Jay Nixon. Nixon uses the Missouree and Missouruh versions on an equal basis, even using both in the same sentence. A former spokesman for Governor Nixon calls him “oratorically ambidextrous.”
Nixon’s Republican challenger, Dave Spence, uses the Missouree version exclusively, saying “people can see through insincerity from about 150 yards.” He adds that he’d never change his pronunciation for political gain. Spence hasn’t had much success pushing that idea in his own home, though, as his wife uses the Missouruh version, even while campaigning.
Reasons for the two versions are a subject of debate for both linguists and historians. Some claim the eastern half of the state prefers Missouree, the western half Missouruh. Others say it’s a north- south thing, with Missouree dominating the north half of the state and Missouruh the south. A third group claims Missouree is the choice in cities and Missouruh in the country.
An English professor at the University of Missouri who also studies linguistics says “The Missouruh pronunciation carries a degree of stigma as incorrect or at least old-fashioned,” adding that young people tend to avoid it even if they are from families who used that pronunciation.
Politicians still like saying Missouruh, following the lead of President Harry Truman and Senator John Ashcroft, among others. A Democratic consultant quoted in the article advises clients to use the Missouruh pronunciation when campaigning in rural areas. A Republican consultant said he’s never discussed the issue with a candidate from Missouri, but advises those from out-of-state that it’s safer to say Missouruh.
Even though this is mostly a question for the state of Missouri and it hasn’t come up in any debates, the presidential candidates differ on this issue just as they do on Big Bird’s continued employment.
Mitt Romney addressed the issue directly at a campaign event during the primary race in the state, asking the crowd, “How many say Missouree like I do?” President Obama, meanwhile, has favored the Missouruh version during his campaign appearances.
On a more local note, I’ve always wondered if the proper pronunciation of the town in northeast Lenawee County is “Tecumsee” or “Tecumsuh.” That will have to be a subject for another day.
Although the Times claims Missouri is “the only state where there is fundamental, if mostly good natured, disagreement about saying the state’s name,” I can remember a couple of incidents to the contrary.
Readers may remember a column from 2003 about a trip to Missouree/Missouruh during which I made a stop at the Illinois Welcome Center on my way home. After searching the selection of tourist literature, I went to the information desk and asked if they had a Illinois state map.
The woman in charge replied that she’d give me one since I was the first person all day to pronounce the name of the state correctly. Everyone else had pronounced it as if it were spelled “Illinoise,” not her preferred “Illinoy.” She seemed quite bothered by the situation. My reward was a free map.
Then, there was a trip to Michigan’s western Upper Peninsula back in the mid 1980s. I had stopped at an antique store named, of all things, “The Last Place on Earth.” I parked next to a car with Iowa license plates and went inside.
The proprietor asked me if I was from out of state, then added that someone from “Ohio” was elsewhere in the store. When I replied that there was also a car from Iowa in the parking lot, she rather snottily informed me that “That’s what I said, Ohio!”
I suppose the store is probably long gone by now, but If I ever went back and found it still open, I know what I’d tell her. Since I’m now a resident of Ohio, I’d claim to be from Des Moines. She’d probably never figure out the difference.