You are here

You Say Nevada, I Say Nevada…

Professor Michael Green offers a history lesson in how to say the state's name.

Campus News  |  Oct 18, 2016  |  By Francis McCabe

The pronunciation of our state name is so important to Nevadans that the state tourism commission developed its logo to emphasize short vowel sound with a breve mark. (Aaron Mayes/UNLV Photo services) 

You Say Nevada, I say Nevada…

You can just picture Las Vegas legend Wayne Newton singing his own version of “You say to-mā-to, I say To-mah-to, You say Ne-vah-da. I say Ne-vă-da."

At least, that is, if he was singing to an audience mixed with people from across the country. Because, when it comes to pronouncing the Silver State’s name, it’s us against everyone else on Earth.

Unless you’re a politician seeking office. Then you better know your audience.

UNLV history professor Michael Green said in the 150 years since Abraham Lincoln first gave our chunk of land statehood, only Nevadans pronounce our state name with the short “a”: Ne-vă-da.

Ask a Californian about the Sierra Nevada range and undoubtedly they’ll pronounce it Ne-vah-da, the Spanish pronunciation for the word that means “snowfall.”

And while Californians, and frankly the rest of the world, might disagree with us on the pronunciation of Nevada, technically we’re on good standing, the history professor said.

“We as Americans have adapted the place, names, and parts of the language around us,” he said.

And Nevada isn’t the only debate-worthy location in our vernacular. Americans have succeeded for a couple of centuries in mispronouncing words. Just ask Native American tribes how their ancestors would say Kansas or Kentucky. Los Angeles and San Pedro, California, pronounced with an American accent are incorrect for the Spanish words.

No one seems to know how Silver State founders ended up with the unique pronunciation of Nevada, Green said. “It just seemed to have happened.”

There’s no known record of anyone in the territorial legislature demanding the state’s name be pronounced a certain way. “They were too busy arguing over whether Nevada should be the state’s name at all. They considered Washoe after the Native American tribe and Esmeralda because the Spanish word for ‘emerald’ resonated with the miners and Victor Hugo’s work The Hunchback of Notre Dame was immensely popular at the time,” Green said.

“What we know is that Americans moving west weren’t educated in proper Spanish grammar. For instance, the port of San Pedro and the city of Los Angeles are still being pronounced incorrectly by Americans. Even California is spoken incorrectly. You’re supposed to use a soft “a” in the proper Spanish pronunciation.”

Green added that there is a Nevada, Missouri, and a Nevada, Iowa. The Midwesterners in these states added a third way to pronounce the word: Ne-VAY-dah.

Still there are consequences if the state name is mispronounced here. For politicians, going with “Ne-vah-da” could lead to some unwanted and unforeseen issues, Green said.

Presidential candidate John Kerry was derided in the state for his mispronunciation in the 2004 election, even though his opponent George W. Bush had earlier in his career made the same mistake. “In Northern Nevada, the blowback can be especially severe,” Green said of politicians who say the state name incorrectly. In the south, you’re more likely to be hooted and criticized, he said.

“It’s a sign you haven’t studied the local customs and culture. It’s akin to Gerald Ford eating a tamale with the husk still on. Or imagine a candidate going to Chicago’s Southside cheering for the Cubs or eating a slice of New York pizza with a fork and knife.”

You just don’t do it, Green said.

So will mispronouncing the state name cost one of the two main candidates this election?

“There are so many things that go into a voter deciding who to cast their ballot for, and we are seeing reactions to the two major party candidates that are not traditional. The faux pas of pronouncing Nevada incorrectly is probably not high up on the list for people deciding on who to vote for,” Green said.

But it certainly doesn’t help, he said.