I say MED-ve-dev, you say med-VYEHD-yev, let’s call the whole thing off

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During the presidential debate last Tuesday, NBC’s Tim Russert made a big deal out of the candidates’ ability to say the name of Dmitry Medvedev, the pliant functionary who Clinton correctly called “Putin’s handpicked successor" but stumbled over the correct pronunciation of his name. (Obama, perhaps wisely, didn't even try). Russert’s smugness was no doubt due to his access to pronunciation guides and his ability to practice a difficult name before employing it in the trivial gotcha game that passes for modern political journalism. Now, unless you run for president, you will likely not be subject to juvenile mind games by snarky gasbags like Russert. But you may want to correctly pronounce the names of foreign leaders and distant lands and, thanks to the Voice of America, you will be able to access the same kind high-quality tools that TV anchors use.

Broadcasters have long relied on reliable pronunciation guides but these tools were usually not available to the public. The guide privately maintained by the BBC’s Pronunciation Unit is the granddaddy of these tools and a current version was recently offered for sale in an affordable book form. (Something especially useful for those of us who like to opine on world affairs in an Oxbridge accent). In the states, the AP has a regularly updated guide available only to subscribers, but bootlegged older versions regularly pop up on websites. Unfortunately, newer names are still circulated privately and generally it’s the newer presidents, tyrants and rebels that beg for pronunciation assistance.

However, the publicly funded Voice of America has an excellent, regularly updated and completely free guide at http://names.voa.gov. It uses a simplified notation system that does not use diacriticals or symbols, but also provides MP3s of the names pronounced. Textual pages explain its methodology, its sources, and give more details on its pronunciation rules.

The BBC, AP and VOA guides give assistance on the names in the news, but occasionally a question arises over older names, obscure geographic locations, and characters in literature and mythology. In this case, I usually turn to some well-worn tools. For personal names, I refer to the first edition of Webster's Biographical Dictionary (1951) and its latest incarnation Merriam-Webster's Biographical Dictionary. The new version dropped hundreds of names but added almost as many; together used together they are fairly complete. Merriam-Webster's Geographical Dictionary is a solid source for place names. Webster’s Second International Dictionary (1934 and other printings) is a great source for help pronouncing the characters of mythic, biblical, and English literary history. The Online Merriam-Webster Dictionary also has pronunciation data (and audio cues) for many geographic and literary names.