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On the pronunciation of my name

November 28, 2010

My name is not actually difficult to pronounce, but it’s so often mangled I’ve finally written a primer.

Jessamyn is pronounced jess-ah-min, with the accent vaguely on the first syllable.

Johnston is pronounced johns-ton, also vaguely accented on the first syllable.

Smyth is one syllable pronounced with a long I sound and a hard TH. Sm-ay-th.

Details and troubleshooting below the fold, for those who are a) confused, b) curious, c) interested in the right naming of things or d) amused by ranting.

* * *

Jessamyn is the traditional Scottish folk-name for the flower jasmine, and a common-ish name over there. I am part Scottish, and I was also named for the wonderful writer Jessamyn West, who was a friend of the family.

The Y’s in my first and last name are neither hippie nor gratuitous: they are how the names have been spelled for lo these hundreds of years.

There are no Z’s in “Jessamyn,” you will notice. That means it is not pronounced “Jezzamyn.” Or “Jezebel.” Or anything else with a Z sound. The two S’s, oddly enough, are pronounced as you pronounce two S’s anywhere else in the English language. If you can say Jessica or Jessie (neither of which are my name, I unfortunately and regularly need to point out), or fuss, miss, tussle, mess, wuss, suss, etc.—you can say Jessamyn.

“Jessamyn” is not “Jessamine” (which is a variant folk-name for the flower jasmine, and a different pronunciation entirely*). The “-myn”–as  suggested by the Y and lack of E–is pronounced “min.” As I have mentioned, the Y is not something thrown in by me, my mother, or anyone else to seem different or cool: it’s just the traditional spelling of an old-fashioned name.

*Or not, as I have just learned in response to this post: there is at least one long familial line of Jessamines who pronounce it jess-a-min. Go figure. Variation! Keeps people on their toes.

Some people shorten my name to “Jess.” I don’t hate this, since a jess is what you use to hang onto a raptor, and I like raptors. Please note, though: there are three categories of people who do this. 1) Family and very close friends who have long-since proven that they both know and can correctly pronounce my actual name who are  using “Jess” as the only* affectionate diminutive I don’t kibosh immediately. 2) People who can’t be bothered to use my name correctly. 3) People in large groups, deli-counter workers, or strangers on the phone who will abuse “Jessamyn” to such a degree that it’s just not worth the effort of having a long and infinitely repeated conversation about it. Me introducing myself as “Jess” to this last category of people is sort of like a guy named “Xavier” telling a large group his name is “Bill” just to spare the inevitable and redundant hassle that ensues every time he says “Xavier.” The vast majority of people who call me “Jess” are in the second category – and no, I don’t like it.

* “Gilly’s human” is also acceptable.

Johnston is my maternal grandmother’s maiden name. My brother got Morrison for his middle name, which was my grandfather’s name. So now we have both major familial Scottish clans covered, and very cool crests and tartans to go with them. Johnston has no E on the end: therefore it is not pronounced Johnstone.

Smyth is an old-fashioned English name, via my Russian-Jewish father (whose matrilineal name was left on some counter on Ellis Island: his mother also took an English guy’s name when she married him, leaving the Ellis Island replacement at some other counter). Smyth means smith, or maker. It is not, however, pronounced that way, as the (also-not-hippie-or-gratuitous) Y suggests. It is also not pronounced the same way as “Smythe,” which has an E at the end as my name does not. An E at the end means the TH is soft. The lack of one in my name means the TH is hard. Therefore: Smyth is one syllable with a long “I” sound which is not pronounced “smith.”

Etymologically speaking, it’s a good name for a writer. Not as rocking, I admit, as “Eugenides,” but solid.

Finally: I often use my whole name to sign things. I do this because I like my name, and the histories reflected in it, not because I was once married to someone named Johnston but lost my hyphen in the divorce.

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