You Say Tomayto, I Say Tomahto: Let's Both Say BeiJing

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

This is a low-stress way to ease back into the ancient art of blogging. Our leaders, from J.J. Gould to Chris Bodenner, have explained the logic behind this new feature on The Atlantic’s site here. My colleagues, including Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jeffrey Goldberg, have gotten into the swing of things as you will read.

“Beijing,” from Beijing Olympic Committee

Here’s a very modest little first installment on my part, as I return from another week on the road. Several years ago, I launched a campaign to convince American broadcasters not to pronounce the name of China’s capital as if the j had a Frenchified zh- sound, like the ones in azure or leisure. Instead, they should say to themselves: “Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, if I can just remember that I can also say Beijing.” You’ll see the results in “NBC Olympic Announcers: Please Read This”; “Is It Walter Cronkite’s Fault?”; “It’s Not Walter Cronkite’s Fault”; and “Chas Freeman’s View.” Obviously that’s not a perfect English rendering of a Chinese sound, which you’re not going to get; but it’s closer than azure.

Tl;dr version: Americans think that any foreign-language word should be pronounced as if it were in French. Thus Beijing becomes Beizhing, even though that takes it even farther away from how Chinese people would say it. This hyper-foreignism was rampant among NBC Olympic commentators for both the 2008 Beijing and 2012 London games, with the laudable except of Ted Robinson.

Now, a reader reports a success story.

David Kung, a professor of mathematics at St. Mary’s College in Maryland, writes to say:

I was watching coverage of the World Track & Field championships which are back at the Bird's Nest in Beijing. I love Ato Boldon's commentary, but grimaced every time he said Beizhing.

A high school friend of mine works on the broadcasts for USATF [USA Track and Field], so I dropped him a note with a link to your similar reaction to 2008 Olympic commentary.

This morning I caught the men's 400, after which the announcers signed off "from Beijing" instead of "from Beizhing".

Change is so hard - you have to celebrate the small victories.

Indeed! Additional modest-scale updates to come.