Myers: Does Nevada’s pronunciation matter?

In 2003, George W. Bush pronounced Nevada’s name as Ne-vaw-dah instead of Ne-vadd-uh. It sparked some news coverage in the Silver State and state archives administrator Guy Louis Rocha was called by a reporter for a comment and was quoted on the topic.

He said nothing critical of Bush, and that was communicated in the original story that quoted him.

But then the Associated Press recycled and rewrote that first story and sent it out to the nation. The new AP version pitted Rocha against Bush. That misrepresentative version was then posted on Matt Drudge’s website, which is widely read by loons with short tempers. Soon Rocha was buried in vitriolic, vicious messages.

The “issue” of pronunciation of Nevada’s name has been back since Donald Trump took it upon himself to instruct Nevadans on how it is mispronounced. I saw an interview with UNLV Professor Michael Green in which he was asked if mispronouncing Nevada’s name will change votes.

“There are so many things that go into a voter deciding who to cast their ballot for, and we are seeing reactions to the two major party candidates that are not traditional,” Green said. “The faux pas of pronouncing Nevada incorrectly is probably not high up on the list for people deciding on who to vote for.”

I suspect he’s right, particularly in the case of a candidate like Trump who has given the public so many reasons to vote against him that are higher on the list than the middle syllable of Nevada’s name. But I wonder if he’s right when it comes to candidates at lower levels than the presidency. What about when a lobbying outfit called Associated Builders and Contractors sends a television commercial to Nevada televisions stations supporting Joe Heck for U.S. Senate and its narrator says: “Heck voted for local control of Ne-vaw-da lands”? That says something about out-of-state PACs and whether they know anything about the states whose elections they are trying to affect.

Green is also correct that a lot of people are responding to some issues that are “not traditional.” To be fair, the candidates have talked about more serious things, and even issued position papers that are more substantive, but the public has shown little interest in them.

Nevada was, of course, heisted from Mexico by a war of military aggression. In the case of California, there is a rich heritage of its time as Spanish California. But in Nevada’s case, the state’s name is one of the few remnants left of that period of the state’s history. California was so lush and resource-rich that it attracted people. Nevada, which is mostly inside the Great Basin, tended to scare people – at least white people – away. As a result, very little Spanish or Mexican heritage stuck. So it’s not all that surprising that the Spanish version of the state’s name was lost at some point. When Sen. Harry Reid responded to Trump by saying that Rafael Rivera was the first non-native known to set foot in the Las Vegas Valley, one national reporter misspelled Rivera’s first name, making the pitfalls of these “issues” clear.

This issue comes up from time to time and there are a few people like Trump who try to say that the locals are wrong. It’s best not to go there. Generally, people get to decide for themselves how to pronounce their communities, as the residents of Des Moines, Worcester, Toledo, Los Angeles, Baton Rouge, Notre Dame, New Orleans and Nevada, Iowa would be pleased to point out. So, for that matter, would the residents of Genoa, Nevada, who do not pronounce it the way the residents of Genoa, Italy do, and so would the residents of Verdi, Nevada, who do not pronounce it the way the Giuseppe did.

By the way, back in 2003, a letter to the editor of a Reno newspaper noted that Rocha is pronounced Roh-sha, not Roh-kuh.

Dennis Myers is an award-winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.

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