At the U.N., It's Annan, as in `Cannon'

By Pisik, Betsy | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), January 24, 1997 | Go to article overview

At the U.N., It's Annan, as in `Cannon'


Pisik, Betsy, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


NEW YORK - You can forgive President Clinton for mispronouncing the U.N. secretary-general's name at yesterday's White House press conference. Almost everyone gets it wrong.

As foreign names go, Kofi Annan is not so difficult. And yet, even at the United Nations, where Mr. Annan has served for 34 years, few people had rhymed "Annan" with "cannon" until the week before Christmas, when he was elected to be the next leader of the world body.

So, repeat aloud:

"It's Kofi like Sophie, Annan with the accent on the first syllable," said one well-practiced employee in the spokesman's office. "You know, I've been saying that a lot lately."

Even while Mr. Annan worked his way through the U.N. bureaucracy running the offices overseeing administration, personnel and peacekeeping, people here and abroad - including Mr. Clinton - consistently pronounced his name like some East Village java joint.

"We always said it `Coffee Anon,' " said one U.N. correspondent, too embarrassed to allow his name or publication to be named. "No one ever corrected me. And I spelled it right."

Indeed, the informality and accessibility that has made the soft-spoken Ghanaian so popular here only contributed to the confusion.

"You have to remember," explained spokesman Juan Carlos Brandt, "everyone and their mothers in this place [the United Nations] called him `Kofi.' No matter what you were talking about, if you said `Kofi,' people knew who you meant. Very few people called him `Mr. Annan.' "

But now that he is the secretary-general, "Kofi" is no longer an appropriate appellation and correspondents around the world are learning to say it right.

The pronunciation of names is something of an occupational hazard at the United Nations, where envoys from 185 nations are thrown together in formal meetings and informal greetings all the time. Confusion reigns, at least at first.

At the gala opening session of the General Assembly each year, foreign ministers and heads of government are announced as they ascend the podium to speak. Even at that rarefied level, said a cringing senior protocol officer Igor Novichenko, "names are sometimes distorted beyond recognition."

Consider, for example, being handed the business card of Oleg Chtcherbak , a senior counsel in the Russian Federation mission. It's pronounced simply "sher-bok," but only the most experienced of linguists could be expected to know that.

Of course, difficult names abound, even in the American heartland. …

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