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Receipt for yesterday's lunch:

The Ethiopian server asked for my name.

"Victor," I said.

"What?" she asked.

"Vic-tor," I enunciated as clearly as possible.

I paid for my order, then stood by the side to wait for my name to be called.

After about four minutes, she called out, "Bichetr!"

I claimed my burger, amidst the smiles of the other customers and the people working behind the counter.


[Thanks to Gypsy Gal]


  1. Alessio said,

    September 16, 2017 @ 9:55 am

    How was Bichetr pronounced?

  2. Ben Zimmer said,

    September 16, 2017 @ 10:01 am

    Not to be confused with the Mughal court painter Bichitr

  3. Jeff Carney said,

    September 16, 2017 @ 3:04 pm

    A friend once ordered Beefeater gin at a Chinese restaurant. The server wrote down "Bee Feeder." A forgivable error, but amusing.

  4. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    September 16, 2017 @ 4:14 pm

    Seemingly Ethiopian and Victor don't mix.

    However, this reminded me of a similar experience I had at the Starbucks at Copenhagen Airport not long ago. (Can't go much more cosmopolitan can one.)

    Watching the cashier struggle with the names of all of my friends in front of me (including things such as Kasia and Agnieszka), I thought I'd make his life a bit easier and identified myself as John. Yes, he could write that down no problem but the /dʒ/ came out very far from satisfactory when he repeated it (and later, when they called it out). Poor Danes.

    Coming back to my table with a cup marked "John" was good fun though.

  5. Rubrick said,

    September 16, 2017 @ 5:23 pm

    @Jeff Carney: Bee feeder for Beefeater is quite a nice eggcorn, though I don't know if it's Out There. After all, the Beefeaters serve the queen…

  6. Andrew Usher said,

    September 16, 2017 @ 5:43 pm

    Yes, I would also like to know how this was pronounced. Without any knowledge of the phonology this seems just a case of making fun of the foreigners (not that I would accuse you of crassly doing so).

    And when you pronounced 'Victor' the second time, how did you say it? I can think of several possibilities.

  7. Duncan said,

    September 16, 2017 @ 5:57 pm

    I work as a restaurant cashier at a rather large (unnamed) chain. They introduced names a few years ago, but apparently took a lesson from the various controversies surrounding names/labels on orders and do *NOT* print the name on the receipt or anywhere else readable by the customer, normally only displaying it on the kitchen monitors, tho it's also on the "reprint receipt" list on the registers, if we need to do that.

    They specifically train us to write it as it *sounds*, with more emphasis on that than "correct" spelling.

    Which has given me a new way to have fun with an otherwise potentially rather boring job:

    Ann Drew
    Wry Ann
    Brit Knee
    Toe Knee
    Ant on Knee
    Tray C
    Tie Lure

    (We even had a Tyler come in who was running an outdoors/hunting shop… he was wearing a T-shirt advertising it that I commented on first, leading to his mentioning the business, and I suggested they could use his name for their fishing products line. =:^)

    Of course some customers prefer not to give their name. They're usually A, B… but sometimes they supply alternatives such as Batman, GamerGirl, etc, and we have one regular that I look forward to seeing what he'll use each time, as it's always Hungry, Hurry, Rush (tho he didn't particularly appreciate my "like Limbaugh" comment one time he used that one and hasn't used that one since), Help, etc. Hearing the person handing it out call "help, your order is ready" appears to be mildly amusing to him, too, as he's used that one a few times recently.

  8. amy said,

    September 16, 2017 @ 7:59 pm

    Some places avoid the whole isue of naming by giving you a number instead, which is then displayed on a sign when called out to further prevent fourteen/forty type confusion.

  9. David Morris said,

    September 16, 2017 @ 9:59 pm

    A colleague in Korea said a student introduced himself as 'K'been'. Some time later the class was talking about nicknames and he asked that student why he'd chosen that name. The student said 'Is famous actor – K'been Costener!'.

  10. maidhc said,

    September 16, 2017 @ 10:29 pm

    No one says you have to give your correct name to such people.

    I knew a music professor who used to hang out in a campus restaurant, in fact I think he basically had his office hours there.

    They used to ask for first name and initial, so day after day they would call out such names as "Wolfgang M", "Hector B", "Giuseppe V" and so on.

    As amy says, many places use numbers instead, but I know a few places around here where they call out the numbers in Spanish.

  11. Zeppelin said,

    September 17, 2017 @ 4:50 am

    Is writing down/calling out customers' names a common practice in US eating establishments, then? As a German I've only ever encountered it at Starbucks, and assumed it was an intrusively chummy affectation of that particular chain. The method I'm used to is calling out the name of the dish when it's ready ("two pizza mozzarella!").

  12. Victor Mair said,

    September 17, 2017 @ 5:23 am

    "this seems just a case of making fun of the foreigners (not that I would accuse you of crassly doing so)."

    If I didn't make myself clear enough in the o.p., the mood at Smashburger the day before yesterday was decidedly mellow and jovial. If there was any apprehension, it was on the part of the wait staff who may have momentarily been concerned that I might be offended by what the server did to my name. When everybody realized that I was not the least bit upset, but was actually amused and pleased by the server's creative rendering of my admittedly difficult (for an Ethiopian) name, there were smiles all around. The server and I happily looked each other directly in the eye and had a nice bit of bonding, and the same happened with a couple of other members of the restaurant staff. It was a nice experience for all, including several of the customers standing nearby.

  13. Tom davidson said,

    September 17, 2017 @ 1:40 pm

    Chinese often use characters beginning with a b sound when transcripting foreign words starting with a v; both are labials. I have a long list of examples.

  14. ardj said,

    September 17, 2017 @ 2:00 pm

    @Jarek Weckwerth: I am a little surprised at the difficulty you report: yes, the normal pronunciation of 'j' in Danish is as a 'y', but (and I would have thought this especially true at Kastrup airport and in one of those revolting S-buck places that make such dreadful coffee) Danes are usually quite acquainted with English, and of course with Anglo-US culture / cultural icons (John Wayne/ Julie Andrews / James Bond…. or am I getting confused about culture ?). Moreover they have the English sound to hand in Danish, as any djærv djævel will tell you. I wonder if your interlocutor was a "foreigner " ?

  15. Matt S said,

    September 17, 2017 @ 2:14 pm

    I would have expected an F-like sound to be the stand-in for V if one is having trouble pronouncing it; like Fic-tor. But from reading the above comments, using the B sound is apparently the common substitution? Maybe because the V in Victor is definitely voiced, so an unvoiced F sound is obviously not correct?

  16. Steven Marzuola said,

    September 17, 2017 @ 2:28 pm

    Zeppelin, using customer names is the exception and not the rule, but it happens often enough that patrons are not surprised. Starbucks. It's most common in two settings: One is places like Starbucks, where you place your order and then are called to pick it up. Another place that does this is Fuddruckers. Most other fast food places give you a number and print it on your receipt, or hand you a plastic sign with a number on it, then enter the number as part of the order.

    The other place is in traditional sitdown restaurants, when it gets crowded. You give your name to an attendant at a little desk or stand, and when your table is available, your name is called out loud. But not every restaurant does this. Many use pagers.

    P.S. I really like the idea of saying "Batman", using Morgan Freeman's voice in the movie "Lean On Me."

  17. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    September 17, 2017 @ 3:38 pm

    @ardj: Well I'm a phonetician, so maybe I'm being too harsh (aka sensitive), and also my first language is Polish, which has a number of distinctive sounds in the (post-)alveolar region, making the sensitivity even more acute. In other words, Danish /dj-/ (e.g. in the words you mention) sounds decidedly non-/dʒ/ to these ears… Sorry to be such a nitpicker.

  18. AntC said,

    September 17, 2017 @ 7:34 pm

    @Matt S using the B sound is apparently the common substitution?

    Victor tells us his server was Ethiopian; but not which ethnic/language/scriptal group. We could wildly surmise some sort of Arabic/Semitic. And therefore more Abugida than alphabet.

    Then there's no distinct letter for V: it's the same letter as B but decorated with a dot, that's often omitted. Stress in 'Victor' is on the first syllable, so there would be a vowel there (but not for the other/unstressed syllables). The hard C would probably get written with letter Kha, with the vowel quality being schwa; and that's why I said "other syllables" plural because Vctor's server might speak a language without consonant clusters.

  19. Andrew Usher said,

    September 17, 2017 @ 8:52 pm

    So something like [ˈbəxətə] then? I have no familiarity with Ethiopian languages nor accents, but requested some phonetic detail because I am curious about what transforms 'Victor' into something that can be written 'Bichetr'.

    You're right, [dj] is not [dʒ]. I assume the Danish cluster is at least somewhat fricated, so [dʝ] may be better, but there's still a difference and I can understand it would be especially perceptible to speakers of Polish and probably other Slavic languages. I assume neither of the options available to English speakers – [dj] and [dʒ] would really capture what you heard there.

    In British English, there seems to be some kind of confusion of the two associated with ongoing yod-coalescence. But for Americans, this change is no longer active, and we can usually hear the difference. Yod-coalescence is for us as non-rhoticity is to Englishmen; there is no longer a continuum between rhotic and non-rhotic 'mother' (except in Scotland) but one or the other, and likewise there is not a continuum in America between 'pendulum' (to cite one word heard both ways) with [dj] and with [dʒ] but a binary choice.

    k_over_hbarc at

  20. Birdseeding said,

    September 18, 2017 @ 3:46 am

    My Dominican wife very often shifts "v" into a "b" sound as well in her dialect – "uva" (grape) as [ˈ] for instance. It's obviously a common shift across a range of languages and dialects.

  21. Bev Rowe said,

    September 18, 2017 @ 6:14 am

    I once had to put out an announcement in a French airport to make contact with someone called Ron Faquhar. I hadn't thought out how that would sound with a French pronunciation.

  22. Andrew Usher said,

    September 18, 2017 @ 6:51 am

    That's the Spanish /β/, different from /v/ though usually heard as it by English speakers. It seems to shift more easily, probably because it's already at the right place of articulation and making it a stop is simple fortition. Note that if the same person pronounces sometimes [b] and sometimes [β], it may be a sound change in progress but is not the imperfect imitation that was apparently the cause of this mistake.

    [It's actually quite surprising that [β] has remained in Spanish for 1500 years. Normally the sound does evolve to /v/, though I guess less predictably than for its voiceless counterpart.]

  23. Joyce Melton said,

    September 18, 2017 @ 7:59 am

    Most Spanish dialects don't make a distinction between b and v, though which sound they use for the letters may vary by dialect. And many of them honestly cannot hear the distinction between the sounds we use in English.

    There's a two thousand year old joke based on this: Caesar wrote that the Spanish were fortunate because for them, to live was to drink. The joke still works in modern Spanish.

  24. dainichi said,

    September 18, 2017 @ 8:29 pm

    the /dʒ/ came out very far from satisfactory when he repeated it

    I'm a native Danish speaker (but not a phonetician) and I'm a bit surprised by this. I'm not sure exact how this is analyzed traditionally, but I would say that in my clearest speech, I distinguish /dj/ as in djævel from /dʒ/ as in John or juice, but in fast speech, I merge them as [dʒ]. I don't think I've ever heard a native Danish speaker pronounce John (or juice) with [dj] or [dʝ], and if I did, I'd assume it was an older or dialectal speaker. So could it be something else that sounded strange, e.g. the devoicing of onset stops (I didn't mark that in the above)?

  25. Fluxor said,

    September 19, 2017 @ 12:01 am

    @Tom davidson, can you provide some examples of Chinese characters with initial 'b' sounds used to transcribe the English 'v'?

  26. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    September 19, 2017 @ 5:45 am

    @dainchi I was somewhat surprised, too ;) especially since just before that I had worked on some English as spoken by Danes with good accents (and Danish as such, too).

    Of course I didn't make a recording, and of course I have no idea if he was in fact Danish at all, so it was very definitely a Labovian fourth-floor type of situation. But I would say the thing was closer to what you get in the words ardj mentioned (e.g. djærv) than in e.g. jogge which would be generally quite acceptable as an English /dʒ/.

  27. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    September 19, 2017 @ 5:46 am

    I meant to say "what you can hear in these linked dictionary recordings".

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