Don’t forget the tilde: New Mexican president is Enrique Peña Nieto

By Robert Buckman

Because Mexico’s new president-elect, who will be sworn in on Dec. 1, is destined to be in our news for the next 6½ years, we should at least spell his name correctly. It’s Enrique Peña Nieto, not Enrique Pena Nieto.

I’ve conducted a two-day check of major news websites, with interestingly mixed results.  The AP, Reuters, USA Today and presumably other Gannett papers, ABC, CBS, NBC/MSNBC, Fox News, NPR, the Houston Chronicle, the Chicago Tribune, The Washington Times and The Huffington Post are all doing it wrong.

But The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Dallas Morning News, CNN, Time, Newsweek/The Daily Beast and The Economist are doing it right.

Incredibly, The Miami Herald, which publishes a Spanish-language edition, El Nuevo Herald, and is supposed to know better, is doing it both ways! Its published reports from the AP have it wrong, while those from the McClatchy News Service spell it correctly. In one story alone, it was correct in the subhead and the lede, but wrong in the cutline and the teasers.

An interesting finding of this unscientific content analysis is that the same AP stories in which it is spelled without the tilde are published in The Washington Post and The Dallas Morning News with the tilde, which means the desk people can get it right if they choose to do so. So can the AP and Reuters people, for that matter, because each has a Spanish-language service in which they have to spell it correctly, so obviously they know how.

The Houston Chronicle’s website also has Spanish translations that spell it correctly.

So what’s the big deal over that tilde, ethnocentrists may snort. The big deal is that without it, the name “Pena” is as inaccurately spelled as Obana. In both cases, the misspelling also change the pronunciation. And we’re supposed to spell and pronounce names correctly in journalism, aren’t we?

About 15 years ago, I instructed the desks at the Mac-using Advocate in Baton Rouge and Daily Advertiser in Lafayette how to write El Niño instead of El Nino. They’ve been doing it right ever since. So it can be done. But their websites both have “Pena Nieto” because they defaulted to the AP for world news.

It’s really easy to make the “ñ” on a Mac. Hold down the option key, hit the N key, let go of both, hit the N again and voila, ñ.

Different PCs seem to have different systems. The most common one for the “ñ” is alt+164. Others have a directory of foreign characters, including Greek letters for mathematical formulas and I guess fraternity newsletters, stashed somewhere in the file folder. But it’s doable if you just find it.

The difference between using the tilde or omitting it is a difference not only in pronunciation, but often in meaning.

“Peña” (pronounced PANE-ya, for you broadcast folks) is a common Hispanic surname, i.e., Tony Peña Jr. of the Boston Red Sox. The common noun “pena” (PAY-na) means emotional pain, as in Siento pena por ti (roughly, I feel your pain) or pity, as in, Que pena (what a pity).

I heard NBC’s Kate Snow and all the NPR reporters pronounce Peña Nieto correctly, even as their websites spell it wrong.

Deleting the tilde also can have embarrassing consequences. For example, the word año means year, but the word ano means anus, so if you write “Feliz Ano Nuevo” to impress Hispanic friends next Jan. 1, you are literally wishing them a happy new asshole.

And to head something else off at the pass, don’t think you can get around the tilde problem simply by referring to Peña Nieto on second reference as “Nieto.” Wrong! Nieto is the matronymic, or his mother’s maiden name; Peña is his father’s surname. In Hispanic culture, people often go by both names, as a way to honor Mamá, as well as to distinguish between people with very common names, such as Juan García, who may choose to be identified as Juan García Echinique. Not as many of those around.

It’s purely a personal choice. The incumbent Mexican president chose to go by Felipe Calderón, and his predecessor by Vicente Fox. But their formal names are Vicente Fox Quesada and Felipe Calderón Hinojosa.

I won’t even get into accent marks now, which Time and The Economist do correctly, because the new president doesn’t have one. But the candidate who ran second, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has two. Just as well he lost!

I may be tilde-ing at windmills, but the above-listed media that are doing it correctly are proof that it can and should be done right. Unfortunately, I’ll bet this plea falls on a lot of blind eyes and stubborn minds.

Que pena.

Robert Buckman, Ph.D., is a journalism professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and the author of a reference book on Latin America.

 

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  • Andy Schotz

    Excellent piece. Accuracy matters; we shouldn’t settle for “close enough.”

    Here’s another element, which might exonerate some reporters: At my newspaper, careful reporters have turned in copy with the correct accent marks. But when the story is uploaded to our website, the accents are gone – along with the letters upon which they say. So, “résumé” becomes “rsum” (to name the most egregious example). Supposedly, it’s a quirk in the software, and it’s not unique to our website; I’ve seen it at other news sites.

    The frustration has been such that reporters have to decide between leaving off the accent mark and salvaging the letters or risking an outcome that’s worse. Some editors are attentive and manually add the accents after uploading, but it often takes the reporter calling or emailing after the fact to point out the error for it to be addressed.

    This topic surfaced in my newsroom again just yesterday. I was told by one of our web editors that this problem was fixed when we switched to a new content management program. I remain skeptical, for now.

  • Andy Schotz

    Correction, second graf: But when the story is uploaded to our website, the accents are gone – along with the letters upon which they sit.


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