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you can’t pronounce it, stay away from it

1 March 2009 898 views No Comment

Apart from an inexplicable fear of finding myself barefoot in a locked room with a Chihuahua named Ernesto, there are few things in life that truly terrify me.

Except, of course, Greek restaurants.

It doesn’t matter if the food is delicious or the service prompt and friendly. Invariably, my heart starts pounding, my hands start shaking and my armpits start leaking whenever I scan the menu at a Greek restaurant and notice they offer, for instance, a dish called lachanodolmades.

Don’t even ask what happens if somebody recommends the kleftiko or htapothi sti skhara.

But now, thankfully, scientists have uncovered the reasons behind my panic.

Earlier this week, a new study from the University of Michigan published in Psychological Science revealed that if we have problems pronouncing something, we consider it risky.

Researchers gave a group of students a list of fictitious food additives and were asked to rate how harmful they were. All the made-up additives contained 12 letters, with the names ranging from the relatively easy to pronounce (Magnalroxate) to the almost impossible (Hnegripitrom).

The results were startling: The students consistently judged the hard-to-pronounce additives as more harmful than those with easy-to-pronounce names.

These findings, I think, explain a lot about my behaviour in Greek restaurants (I always order souvlaki), doctor’s offices (I once ran screaming from a routine check-up when it was suggested I had chondromalacia patella, which turned out to be a fancy name for sore knees) and at classical-music concerts (where I am susceptible to prolonged bouts of screaming whenever I overhear somebody casually remark upon “the diatonic leanings of the leitmotif”).

In fact, I think this new research could save the floundering symphony orchestras around the country.

As we all know, classical symphonies are being hurt by the economic downturn. (I don’t have any statistics, but I’ve noticed a lot of out-of-work bassoon players panhandling for spare change.) Why, in some places, they couldn’t give away tickets if they tried.


But maybe people aren’t staying away because they don’t like hearing classical music or seeing all those tuxedos — they’re scared by all those unpronounceable names.

Let’s say the local symphony is staging an evening of works by Sergei Rachmaninoff (pronounced rock-MAHN-i-noff), Antonin Dvorak (da-VOR-zhak) and Bedrich Smetana (SMEH-ta-nah). (You’re on your own with the first names.)

Well, that’s a mouthful. So to avoid scaring off spectators with long, hard-to-pronounce words, the symphony should simply promote the concert as “A night of music by Rocky, Tony and some other guy.”

It might also help if the conductor (henceforth known as “the guy waving the big stick”) stops trying to explain why a particular Allegro giocose movement is so charming, and instead just tells jokes. (For instance: A man digs up Beethoven’s grave and finds the composer crossing out notes on sheet music. “What are you doing?” asks the man. “What do you think I’m doing?” says Beethoven. “I’m decomposing!”)

As long as they remember not to tell any jokes with hard to pronounce words, I’m sure things will be fine.

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