An Open Letter to Chris Matthews

Gotta love ya, Chris. But sometimes you just won’t let us plant a figurative kiss on your cheek. When you first hit the airwaves I was won over by your knowledgeable, quick-witted references to current and historic events or personages and your clever turns of phrase – surely the talents that scored you Hardball on MSNBC and a handful of bestselling books. Now I implore you to stop subverting your talents with bad habits pondered by both friend (“Chris is a truth-seeking member of the Fourth Estate”) and foe (“Chris is so in love with the sound of his own voice he just won’t STFU”).

I could presume to advise you to soft-pedal the persistent self-promotion, allow your guests to actually finish a sentence, and cut down on whatever stimulant practically makes you jump out of your chair (coffee? tea? Red Bull?). But I choose to limit my remarks to a habit that makes more than a few of us want to jump out the nearest window: your undying obsession with the pronunciation of former vice-president Dick Cheney’s last name.*

CHEE-ney Fever

As you well know, Dick Cheney is referred to by virtually everyone as Dick CHAIN-ey, the usual pronunciation of a common surname. Yet you’re on a mission to make us switch to CHEE-ney when speaking of Dick, Lynne, Mary, or Liz. The question, Chris, is WHY – especially when the family itself has yet to find common ground. Lynne has explained that many of her husband’s relatives go with CHAIN-ey, but she and Dick use CHEE-ney; daughter Liz, on the other hand, sides with the CHAIN gang. More important, the family’s choices matter not a whit. This tempest in a teapot is a prime example of a pronunciation firmly cemented in the public mind – and, come hell or high water, common usage prevails.

Most irksome is your need to inform Hardball guests of their “error,” usually with the faux nonchalant declaration “By the way, it’s pronounced CHEE-ney.” That they continue to voice the name as CHAIN-ey should tell you you’re fighting a losing battle, Chris – but you refuse to surrender. On October 23, 2013 your habit went from annoying to galling when you corrected Peter Baker, author of Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House. Wouldn’t a top-flight journalist who spent a year or more interviewing the former vice-president know whether Dick gave a friggin’ hoot about the pronunciation of his surname?

Your obsession wouldn’t be so grating if you weren’t frequently found guilty in the Court of Preferred Pronunciation (to cite three of myriad offenses, the published writer synonym author as AR-thur instead of AW-thur; Giuli-AHN-i as Giuli-ANN-i; and oddly, Mo-HEE-cans as Mo-HICK-cans, though this last one was possibly a slip of the tongue). Not that you don’t redeem yourself at times: You deserved big props when you nailed interstices (in-TEHRS-tuh-seez). Nevertheless, Chris, a lot of us would like you a lot more if you stopped trying to school us… and, with all due respect, chill it with the CHEEN-ey.

*In life’s big picture, the way we pronounce words matters little more than which flavor of potato chip we like best. Still, there are times when using preferred pronunciations will stand you in good stead. For more on the subject, check out the posts in Pronounce This!

6 Responses to An Open Letter to Chris Matthews

  • Claudia Hitchcock says:

    These people are paid so much money there is no excuse for a mispronunciation…he’s not even consistent with an argument for grammar which indicates long vowel if followed by one consonant, etc…

    Surprised he didn’t say Ben-GAZE-i! perhaps the teleprompter operators are the also the ones to help him correct these irritating misuses!

    Which is the reason I don’t watch him as often any longer!

    • Fred says:

      I agree, Claudia. Also found wanting, from time to time, is Chris’s grammar. How could someone in his position not know the past participle of the verb run is run? He inevitably says, “If he’d only ran in the primary…” or some such. Just as mysterious is why his journalist wife of 40-plus years has never sat him down and conjugated the verb for him. (Come to think of it, maybe because she knows she would never get a word in edgewise?)

  • Al says:

    I agree 100% with your article, Fred. I hold my breath every time Matthews brings up Dick Cheney, for fear that he is going to embarrass himself again, by his Cheney pronunciation obsession. What? Does he have a PhD in English Grammar…? If he only knew, how stupid this makes him look, by trying to correct people who may very well be smarter than he is. I have even heard him pronounce Cheney’s name with the long A himself, which is really hilarious. I wish he would stop it already. He just doesn’t get it, does he?

    • Fred says:

      Al, Matthews mispronounces more than a few words virtually every time he’s on the air, which makes it all the more maddening when he suggests that everyone who pronounces the former vice-president’s name as CHAIN-EY is is committing some kind of mortal sin. Yes, the name has two pronunciations, and Dick and Liz use CHEEN-ey. But their daughters and the rest of the world choose CHAIN-ey — and, for better or worse, common usage sets the standard.

  • Joe cheney says:

    I’ve been fighting this my whole life. My family all say Chee-ney not Chain-ey. There are many people with the name Chaney and they deserve that pronunciation not us.

    • Fred says:

      Joe, I know how you feel: My whole family has been fighting the mispronunciation of my surname — DuBose — for generations. People outside the South assume this French Huguenot name is voiced as Du-BWA or Du-BOISE, which has led me to say, “It’s “BOSE, like the speakers” when called for (and with no hint of annoyance, I should add). Also, my Southern origins may explain why I grew up hearing Cheney pronounced only as CHAIN-ey.

      Fact is, radio and TV broadcasters used the AIN rather than the EEN when Dick Cheney first became a public figure — and the more widely known he became, the more firmly the CHAIN-ey vocalization was set in stone. And there was no going back: Once a pronunciation becomes firmly established worldwide, it prevails — even though if one were meeting Liz and Dick for dinner it would be polite to bow to their preference go with the EEN.

      Sadly, Don Quixote (oops – MATTHEWS!) obviously doesn’t understand that it is impossible for a sole crusader to change something that has been effect for more than four decades. But this isn’t the case with you, who (if I may throw in my two cents’ worth) shouldn’t hesitate to smile and say “CHEEN-ey” to anyone who unwittingly CHAINS you.

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