During the recent election campaign, one of the presidential candidates visited the Ohio city where I grew up. The day after the visit, I awoke to the sound of NPR reporters mispronouncing my hometown’s name.
The candidate had been to “Cah-HOGA Falls,” the reporters said. They talked about the turnout in “Cogga Falls” and what the candidate had discussed in “Cooga Falls.” It was enough to cause a sleepy person to wake right up.
“Cooga Falls?” I asked the dog when I finally put feet to floor. It was a rhetorical question, because the dog doesn’t know how to pronounce that word either. Nobody does, except for people who used to live there, or who live there now.
I feel the way a person born into privilege must feel, except in my case what I was given through the randomness of birth wasn’t wealth or notoriety; it was the gift of knowing how to pronounce the name of my hometown: K-eye-a-hoh-ga Falls. I could coach the people at NPR. “Not Cogga Falls,” I’d say. “Not K-eye HOG-a Falls, either. Say it with me: K-eye-a-hoh-ga Falls.”
“Co-Ah-Hiya Falls?” the NPR people would say tentatively. Or maybe not. They’re a smart bunch, those NPR correspondents. They broadcast stories so vividly you’d swear you saw them on TV.
Except they’re more about real life than anything you see on TV.
People who continue to struggle with “Cuyahoga” are the latest in a long line of mispronouncers. When I was in high school, hearing how opposing student sections pronounced our name was always a source of amusement. Probably to show off, the CFHS cheerleaders came up with a cheer that runs through my head even today: “See-you-why-A-aitch-oh-gee-A Eff-A-el-el-ess!
Some clueless schools would settle themselves into the visitors’ stands at football games and proceed to shout “Beat Cuh-hoga! Beat Cuh-hoga!” This was of course ignorant on several levels.
First, they weren’t pronouncing it correctly, and second, saying “Beat Cuh-hoga!” was like expressing a love for New York City by saying “I love New! I love New!” People who understood what they were talking about, on the other hand, would say, “Beat the Falls!” Or “Beat Falls High!” Those people were so smart, chances are they did.
I probably should mention that I haven’t been back to Cuyahoga Falls for years, and it’s possible that its pronunciation has changed over time, the way the glaciers changed Ohio’s landscape. It could be that yesterday’s “K-eye-a-hoh-ga Falls” has evolved into “Cuh-hogga Falls” like a mastodon evolving into a dairy goat.
I doubt it, though. And I take personal pride in knowing the true pronunciation of that place up there near Hudson and Stow. I take a similar pride in knowing how to pronounce the village west of Delaware: “OH-strand-ur.” When I hear people say “AH-strand-ur” I don’t know whether to wince or look lofty. The same goes for the river we all know as the “OH-len-tan-gee,” but that people unfamiliar with these parts want to call the “OH-len-tang- ee,” reminding us of the name of that drink astronauts liked.
Of course, I have no idea how to pronounce “Gratiot,” a place name I see when I drive east on 70. I’ve heard it pronounced, but it doesn’t stick with me; all I remember is the spelling. The same goes for Hiaasen, as in the author Carl Hiaasen, and the girl’s name Siobhan, which I just now learned is pronounced “Shiv-awn.” I hope I remember that better than I remember “Gray-shut.”
But I always know how to pronounce Cuyahoga Falls. Would you like me to spell it again? It’s running through my head anyway: “See-you-why-A-aitch-oh-gee-A Eff-A-el-el-ess! See-you-why-A-aitch-oh-gee-A Eff-A-el-el-ess!” I could spell it all day.
Do you hear me, NPR? I’m available when you need me.