News & Events

Print/PDF this page:

Print Friendly and PDF

Share this page:

Does Tingey Rhyme With Dinghy? Yale Law Team Tackles Hard-to-Pronounce Supreme Court Case Names

Is it Fidell as in fidelity? Or fy-DELL? Yale Law School visiting lecturer Gene Fidell knows all about name mispronunciations since he’s clearly experienced a lot of them himself.

So who better than Fidell to work on a heavyweight pronunciation project? – a dictionary listing the correct pronunciations of Supreme Court cases – going back to 1793 – with hard-to-pronounce names.

Fidell, Florence Rogatz Visiting Lecturer in Law, first became interested in case pronunciation when he was a law student at Harvard. One of his first-year professors, a Maine native, gave Fidell’s civil procedure class the authoritative Maine pronunciation of Plumer in the case, Hanna v. Plumer. Turns out it’s not PLUME-er as you might think, but PLUM-er, as in “Joe the Plumber.” Fast forward several decades.

“It occurred to me about two years ago,” said Fidell, “that a pronouncing dictionary might be the rare example of legal scholarship that was both useful and fun – which proved to be the case.”

Fidell assembled a posse of Yale Law students who put together a list of potential names to include. Methodically, they whittled the list down from approximately 700 candidates for mispronunciation, discarding names such as “Kahanamoku,” “Laborde,” and “Nyquist” that could reasonably be sounded out, but keeping trickier ones such as “Tingey,” “Bakke,” and “Vyfhuis.” They also received many suggestions from law professors and members of the bar as word of the project got around, thanks, in part, to a timely post on Professor Eugene Volokh’s blog, the Volokh Conspiracy.

Thomas Tingey (actually rhymes with “stingy”)

In time, two Yale University Linguistics Department students – one, a Ph.D. candidate – joined the team. Both were especially helpful in figuring out the language group of unfamiliar names as well as their proper pronunciation. Jason Eiseman, head of technology services at the Lillian Goldman Law Library, provided expert technical assistance, and premiere legal lexicologist Bryan A. Garner generously allowed the team to use his Pronunciation Guide, which, along with the International Phonetic Alphabet, was used to spell out the proper pronunciations. Professor Ross E. Davies of George Mason University Law School was another great resource, offering such excellent suggestions as providing sound links that let you hear the correct pronunciations. Davies is editor-in-chief of the Green Bag, which published an article describing the project in its summer 2012 issue.

Sally Pei ’13 said her favorite pronunciations were the ones where they managed to get in touch with the litigants and their families and were able to get a sense of the family and personal histories. She said Trop, from Trop v. Dulles, was particularly fun to track down.

“I found a German phone number for the litigant’s son, Steve Trop, online,” explained Pei. “The number didn’t work, but I then discovered that Steve Trop had a Facebook account. He responded to a message I sent, explaining that Trop is pronounced to rhyme with “rope.” The original name was Tropianski, shortened to Trop when the family immigrated to the United States.”

The “Pronouncing Dictionary of the Supreme Court of the United States” was completed in early August and is now available on the Lillian Goldman Law Library website. Fidell said the team welcomes corrections and suggested additions and will continue to monitor Supreme Court case names going forward. The online version is easy to update – and correct.

With the lion’s share of the work behind them, the team will reconvene when classes resume to go over a “Discuss List” of possible additions and corrections and decide whether to create a second database that will give guidance on how to pronounce Justices’ names, a few of which – Roger B. Taney, for example – are counterintuitive. (It’s TAW-nee.)

The following is a list of project team members:

Sally Pei ’13
Alice K. Hadley ’13
Usha B. Chilukuri ’13
Daniel Jang ’12
Megan E. Corrarino ’13
Brigid M. Davis ’13
Jason A. Zentz, Ph.D. candidate in Linguistics at Yale University
Diallo I. Spears, Yale University ’14
Eugene R. Fidell, Senior Research Scholar in Law and Florence Rogatz Visiting Lecturer in Law

Click here to see how these names (including Gene fy-DELL) are pronounced.

And in case you missed it, here’s NPR’s story about the project.