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May 2015-McCormick Place

The problem with the world is that there are too many names. There was a time when we were young when the names controlling the world were easy to remember. Churchill, who was named after a famous racetrack; 
Roosevelt, who was named after a bridge in Stuart; and Hitler, who was named after his father, did not twist 
the tongue.

Famous generals had easy names – Eisenhower, Marshall, Patton, Montgomery, Bradley, MacArthur, Washington and Lee. They did not challenge brain cells. Even the enemy had fairly simple names, such as Tojo, Hirohito and Rommel. Some Teutonic monikers were a bit challenging, but historically, there was usually a way to associate them with real life. Hindenburg was named after a blimp.

Bismarck after a town in North Dakota. The B-17 was named for a popular vitamin used to counter blitzkrieg 

Today, one sympathizes with any serious student of world affairs. Just in the last 20 years or so, major events have taken place in places nobody heard of. It started in the 1990s with the awful war in Bosnia. The names of prominent political and military leaders were uniformly hard to pronounce, and impossible to remember. Alija Izetbegovic, Radovan Karadzic, Milomir Stakic, Ratko Mladic, Sefer Halilovic, Haris Silajdzic and Slobodan Milosevic were among the many who made the news. If some of these spellings are incorrect, keep in mind most of these people could not even pronounce their own names, much less spell them.

Compounding the problem is the avalanche of new media, all trying to tell the same stories, all trying to pronounce the names nobody heard of from places nobody heard of. We long for the day when newspapers were limited in the names they printed, because they never had any news from the places in the world they never heard of. Americans knew who George Meade was, and maybe Jefferson Davis or Harriet Beecher Stowe. In a typical day, the typical American heard fewer than a dozen names, which could be recalled without Google. People in Blowing Rock, North Carolina, never heard of Ryzhov, Khaletsky or Arbuzov, who were in the Crimean War, because they never knew Crimea existed.

Broadcasters did not have to deal with this problem because there were no broadcasters. Today we feel for the poor broadcasters. Several have had nervous breakdowns on camera, and to this day, there are cases of newsmen being treated for brain trauma, a lingering effect of years of tongue twisting.

The painful thing is that as soon as we begin to come close to getting these names right, the world crisis tends to change to other places and other names nobody can get straight. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the Middle East where the shifting tides of turmoil have forced upon innocent Americans names that only a mother could abide. And as soon as we come close to getting them straight, they disappear and are replaced by equally challenging names.

We are assaulted with names such as Muammar el Qaddafi, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Nouri al-Maliki, Hosni Mubarak, Benjamin Netanyahu (thank god they call him Bibi), Khaled Meshaal, Asif Ali Zardari, Hamad bin Khalifa-Thani, Zine El Abidine Benali, Abdullah Saleh and others for which there are no letters in the English alphabet.

Perhaps the natives have dealt with that problem over the years by naming half the people Muhammad. Indeed, even in the U.S. we have seen creative solutions to difficult names. In our old high school, on the first day, a teacher named Gallagher (O Gallchobhair in old Irish) was going through the names of the class when he came to Szymkowski. We can only spell it because he became the stroke of a championship crew and as a sports writer, we had to recall it on a regular basis. Mr. Gallagher fumbled with the pronunciation and then said to Szymkowski, “From now on, you’re Murphy.” And Murph Szymkowski it is, 50 years later.