June 10, 2021

Every year around this time, you’ll hear two different things when people talk about the Pulitzer Prizes. There’s the pull-it-sirs and the pew-lit-sirs.

But why does the pronunciation of this name cause people confusion?

Linguist Edwin Battistella wondered this, too, after his friend and Pulitzer winner James Risser told Battistella that he’d been saying it wrong. Here’s what Battistella, who teaches linguistics at Southern Oregon University, wrote about the origin of Joseph Pulitzer’s name:

He was born in Hungary, where Pulitzer, or Politzer as it is sometimes spelled, was a common family name derived from a place name in southern Moravia, the village of Pullitz. In the United States, the spelling Pulitzer would have quite naturally been Anglicized as PEW-lit-zer by analogy to the other pu spellings like pure, puritanical, pubic, puce, and so on.

So while the name started as pull-it-sir, most English speakers pronounce it as they would other pu words. But what’s the right way to say it?

Let’s check in with a Pulitzer.

“… My husband said that his father told people to say ‘Pull it sir,'” Emily Rauh Pulitzer told Poynter in an email. Pulitzer is wife of the late Joseph Pulitzer Jr.

She’s also the board chair of The Pulitzer Center On Crisis Reporting and recently gave the center a $12 million endowment challenge grant. At The Pulitzer Center’s 10th anniversary celebration, Pulitzer spoke about the endowment and the tradition of high-quality journalism. Here, listen as she pronounces her famous name:

Although pew-lit-sir might fit with how we pronounce other pu words, both history and the family itself say otherwise.

“I think names are one of the areas where the inevitability of language change gives way to a person’s privilege to have their name said as they would like it,” Battistella told Poynter in an email. “Names are an important part of our identity.”

This article was originally published on April 18, 2016.

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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