Pronouncing "DeSantis"

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The question of how to pronounce Ron DeSantis' last name — and the observation that the candidate, his wife, and his campaign have made different choices at different times — is among the more trivial bits of political flotsam recently washing up on the shores of social and political media. In fact the issue has been discussed in the media since 2018, but it was revived last March by Donald Trump's references on Truth Social to  johnny maga's 3/16/2023 tweet, and more recently in PR moves by Trump's campaign  — "Trumpworld is attacking DeSantis over his inconsistent name pronunciation: 'If you can't get your name right, how can you lead a country?'" (Insider 6/1/2023). A few more links to coverage over the years:

"Tomato, Tomahto; Dee-Santis, Deh-Santis" (Tampa Bay Times 9/20/2018)
"Floridians don't know how to pronounce Ron DeSantis' last name" (News4Jax 9/24/2018)
"DeSantis accused of changing pronunciation of his own name" (Independent 3/21/2023)
"Ron DeSantis Can’t Decide How to Pronounce His Own Name" (New York Magazine 3/17/2023)
"Dee-Santis or Deh-Santis? His team won't say" (Axios 6/1/2023)
"Is Ron DeSantis Forgetting the Way His Wife Wants Him to Pronounce His Name?" (Slate 6/2/2023)
"DeSantis on correct pronunciation of last name: ‘Winner’" (The Hill 6/2/2023)

I agree with Gov. DeSantis that Trump's attacks on his name pronunciation choices are "petty" and "juvenile". But the topic engages some non-trivial linguistic questions:

  1. What kind of name is DeSantis, anyhow? If it's Italian, where does the initial "De" come from?
  2. What are the phonetic variants actually or potentially used in pronouncing the first syllable of "DeSantis" in American English?
  3. What are (some of) the socio-phonetic factors influencing the choice, and which of them are likely to be involved in this case?

Wikipedia says that "All of DeSantis's great-grandparents immigrated from Southern Italy during the Italian diaspora". But neither "de" nor "santis" are what I'd expect if the name were Italian in language rather than geographical origin. [update — see below about pseudo-Latin patronymics in Italian…]

The entry for de in the WordReference Italian-English dictionary lists a bunch of French borrowings (like tour de force, cul-de-sac) and a Portuguese place name (Rio de Janeiro). The Collins Italian-English dictionary yields only the French borrowing chemin-de-fer. And the only likely cognate for Santis would be Santi, the plural of Santo "holy, saint".

So DeSantis is probably a re-spelled version of the Latin phrase de sanctis  "of the saints" — and in fact there are many Italian people and places with the un-respelled version of the name. In the Italian pronunciation of DeSanctis, the initial "de" would be [d e], for which the closest American English approximation would be "day", though without the rising final diphthong. The translation in standard Italian would be di santi (with or without a space), and there are quite a few people with that name, and a bunch more with the singular version di santo.

OK, then how should this name, derived from Latin by way of Italian, be pronounced?

Analogy with other (American) English names, words and phrases is ambiguous.

Most American names with initial prepositional "de" are actually Spanish in origin, e.g. Hernando de Soto, whose name appears in many American places as a well as a brand of cars. In the case of that name, most people seem to produce the first syllable as /dɪ/, like the start of "dip", for which the usual pseudo-American-dictionary spelling would be "dih". But since this is an unstressed syllable immediately preceding the word's main stress, its vowel will generally be reduced to a variable extent, in a schwa-like direction towards "duh" — and [ɛ]-like sounds, represented in the media as "deh", are along that path.

But there are some non-name models as well, for example the latinate prefix de-, for which the OED gives the compositional meaning "having the sense of undoing the action of the simple verb, or of depriving (anything) of the thing or character therein expressed", as in demoralize, demagnetize, dehumidify, de-acidify, de-ice, de-grease, etc. In these words, de- is generally pronounced as /di/, which is what IPA-less writers render as "dee". But in less-compositional latinate words (e.g. defend, degenerate, decline, depressed, etc.), the (historical) prefix de- is generally pronounced /dɪ/, again in variably-reduced forms. As a Yale history major, DeSantis is no doubt thoroughly experienced in hearing and producing such vocabulary.

And there's one more relevant analogy, namely phrases borrowed directly from Latin — mostly in legal and philosophical language, but leaking out into general usage. These include things like de facto, de jure, de novo, de minimis, de re, de dicto, etc. The standard English pronunciation of Latin, at least the one that I was taught, prescribes /deɪ/ (IPA-lessly rendered as "day") for de in such phrases — but the OED prescribes /di/; Merriam-Webster offer three options /dɪ/, /dɐ/ (!), and /de/; and the Wiktionary entry for de facto gives

(UK) IPA: /ˌdeɪˈfæktəʊ/, /dɪˈfæktəʊ/, /ˌdiːˈfæktəʊ/
(US) IPA: /ˌdeɪˈfæktoʊ/, /dəˈfæktoʊ/, /ˌdiˈfæktoʊ/

Since Ron DeSantis is a Harvard Law grad, he's presumably well drilled in some U.S.-ish version of such forms.

There are at least two additional de-related factors in his personal history. The first is that "At Dunedin High everybody called him Dee" — though it's not clear whether that was because of how he pronounced the first syllable of his last name, or just because the first letter of someone's name (here "D.") is a common source of nicknames. And the second factor, pointing in the opposite direction, is the influence of his wife Casey:

She […] got her husband to change the way he says his family name.

“Dee-Santis,” he would say up until around that point. It’s how he always said it. She, on the other hand, would soften that first syllable. “Deh-Santis.”

People noticed the discrepancy and asked about it. “Yes,” campaign spokesperson Stephen Lawson confirmed that September to a reporter from the Tampa Bay Times. “He prefers Dee-Santis.”

Or did.

According to Slate ("The Casey DeSantis Problem: ‘His Greatest Asset and His Greatest Liability’", 5/19/2023):

There are a couple theories as to why Casey would push for the change. Most plausibly, it seems to be a strategic effort to sound more down-to-earth, red meat American. “Dee-Santis” isn’t hard for the American tongue, but Trump is right that it doesn’t roll quite as easily. In this case, the campaign might want to avoid copping to the change—or going on record for either pronunciation—simply because it’s, well, a little embarrassing to bend on something simply to appease American xenophobia.

But there’s also a tiny chance Casey wants to head off any potential authenticity policing: Axios quoted a professor of Italian studies who found “Dee-Santis” a somewhat baffling choice given the spelling of his name, claiming it would make more sense for “DiSantis.” The logical “DeSantis” would be either the Americanized “Duh-Santis” or the more Italian “Day-Sahn-tees.”

I've ignored the issue of how "de" in a Latin borrowing would actually have been pronounced, in the vernacular of whatever part of "Southern Italy" DeSantis's great-grandparents came from.

And I don't have time this morning to go into the actual phonetic performance of the DeSantis name and the other cited forms — where there are some surprises, or at least undocumented facts.

Topics for another day…

UpdateDJL in the comments points us to the  entry on patronymics in the Treccani encyclopedia, which includes this explanatory paragraph:

I cognomi in –is derivano molto spesso da formule di paternità latineggianti, proprie della tradizione cancelleresca, che sono costruite con l’ablativo, e, generalmente, la preposizione de o diDe PetrisDe MartinisDe AndreisDe Robertis e Robertis. Numerosi cognomi che derivano da patronimici o matronimici sono espressi con preposizioni premesse a nomi non latinizzati: D’AngeloD’AnnaDe MariaDi MariaDe GiovanniDi GiovanniDella GiovannaDell’AntoniaDegli Antoni. Questi patronimici sono ritenuti popolarmente indizio di nobile casato, segnalato solitamente dal carattere minuscolo: dedi; da ciò il vezzo di scrivere così il proprio cognome pur in assenza di documentazione storica circa la reale nobiltà della famiglia.

Surnames in -is very often derive from Latin paternity formulas, typical of the chancellery tradition, which are constructed with the ablative, and, generally, the preposition de or di: De Petris, De Martinis, De Andreis, De Robertis and Robertis . Numerous surnames that derive from patronymics or matronymics are expressed with prepositions prefixed to non-Latinized names: D'Angelo, D'Anna, De Maria, Di Maria, De Giovanni, Di Giovanni, Della Giovanna, Dell'Antonia, Degli Antoni. These patronymics are popularly considered an indication of a noble family, usually indicated by the lowercase character: de, di; hence the habit of writing a surname in this way even in the absence of historical documentation regarding the real nobility of the family.

So I was right about the post-classical Latin origin, but probably wrong about the source of the -Santis part, which was apparently a (pseudo-Latin) ablative plural form of the Italian name Santo, rather than a re-spelled form of the ablative plural of the Latin word (or name?) sanctus.



  1. Jessica DeLisi said,

    June 3, 2023 @ 10:39 am

    I’m not a specialist in Italian regional varieties and onomastics, but I believe that De is fairly common in (Southern?) Italian last names. Mine is from Palermo, and not relevantly changed in the US (my cousins there spell it De Lisi). In the US, most of my family members pronounce the first vowel as a schwa (or [I] or [E]), sometimes [i], but never [e]. I think the variation in tense/lax vowel is related to register and rate of speech.

  2. Cervantes said,

    June 3, 2023 @ 10:50 am

    Whatever the history of the name, the fact is (unfortunately, in my view), that for the most part Americans pronounce any unstressed interconsonantal vowel as a schwa. So getting them to say DeeSantis would be swimming upstream.

  3. Max said,

    June 3, 2023 @ 11:03 am

    De Santis (with the space) is a very popular surname in several Italian regions. Just check
    In addition "De" is extremely common prefix in Italian surnames.
    So the statement "But neither "de" nor "santis" are what we'd expect if the name were Italian in language rather than geographical origin." makes no sense at all.

    [(myl) Thanks! But this leaves open two possibilities for the "de" in those names — either there are Italian topolects in which the reflex of Latin de remains de, rather than becoming di as in standard Italian; or else those names were formed in post-classical Latin. (In Sicilian, it's "di"; in Neapolitan it's "d'" before vowels, "'e" before consonants…) And similarly for "Santis" — either there are Italian regional languages where -is is a plural form (or where ablative inflections remain in force); or again, that name is a re-spelling of post-classical Latin "De Sanctis". I'll ask some colleagues who are better informed about Italian topolects. But I'm still betting the name will turn out to be from post-classical Latin…]

  4. DJL said,

    June 3, 2023 @ 11:49 am

    According to the Treccani encyclopaedia entry on patronymics, and I would say DeSantis is such, many Italian last names ending in -is are Latinate versions of last names that have adopted the Latin ablative case, with the common addition of a preposition. So, De Santis could well have started as a patronymic that simply meant 'of the family Santo'. (link here:

    Worth adding that the Treccani has an entry for 'de' too, where it is described as the form the preposition 'di' takes when followed by the determiner 'the', it's just that in modern Italian it is not common to write 'de lo' or 'de la' but 'dello' and 'della'. For what is worth, I have always taken anyone with a last name starting with De/Di to be of Sicilian origin… (link to Trecanni:

    [(myl) Thanks — that's very helpful, especially the first entry about quasi-Latin patronymics. The second one seems less relevant to this case, since there is no determiner in evidence.]

  5. ancora said,

    June 3, 2023 @ 11:50 am

    I'm Italian, and there's nothing unusual with "de" in the last name. E.g. see writer Erri De Luca.
    Or Dino De Laurentiis.

    It's pronounced "deh", not "Dee"

  6. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 3, 2023 @ 12:45 pm

    I'm pretty sure I pronounce the second half of the upscale NYC foodstore name "Dean & DeLuca" with a schwa in the first syllable, but that's all about vowel reduction in unstressed syllables, not based on any intuition about echt-Italian or half-Anglicized Italian-American pronunciation conventions and I don't know how the founding Mr. DeLuca pronounced his own surname. It does seem that, if you have a name of that pattern and prefer an unreduced vowel in the initial unstressed syllable, you might want to resign yourself to dealing with lots of people who automatically reduce it to schwa without meaning ill, and not try to keep correcting them unless you anticipate having a close and ongoing relationship with them.

    FWIW because the "De" in "De Laurentiis" is not adjacent to the stressed syllable, it doesn't get reduced to schwa to the same extent but seems to, in my idiolect, retain the DRESS vowel. It may also be relevant here that in Italian names with "della" as the first component, there's a little bit more stress on the first syllable than the second.

  7. Rodger C said,

    June 3, 2023 @ 1:57 pm

    I simply assumed that "DeSantis" was a slightly assimilated form of the same Latinate name as the literary critic Francesco de Sanctis, whom I learned about long ago.

    [(myl) That's also what I assumed. But we were apparently wrong, according to the quoted Treccani encyclopedia passage.]

  8. Alyssa said,

    June 3, 2023 @ 10:13 pm

    I actually mispronounce my own last name in a similar fashion. The first syllable is unstressed and spelled with "e", and I grew up saying it as a schwa. I found out in my late 20s that this came from my mother, who of course did not grow up with the name – my father and all his relatives pronounce the first syllable as [i]. No one had noticed, over all those years!

  9. Adrian Bailey said,

    June 4, 2023 @ 9:36 am

    My reaction to his wife/campaign preferring the shwa was that it's snobbery – the French "de" has a certain je ne sais quoi that English "dee" lacks. I dislike the shwa pronunciation, including because it makes it sound like his name is Rhonda Santis.

  10. Robert Coren said,

    June 4, 2023 @ 10:51 am

    My casual observation is that US-born people with surnames of Italian origin are as likely as not to pronounce them in ways that have little to do with how they were or would be pronounced in Italian. Case in point (because I have occasion to hear it frequently) is the surname of longtime Red Sox radio announcer Joe Castiglione, which is pronounced by all and sundry (including the man himself) /kæ stɪg li ˈoʊn/.

  11. ajay said,

    June 7, 2023 @ 4:52 am

    Italian surnames of the form "De X" are very far from unknown!
    Alcide De Gasperi (Tyrolean) was prime minister and Enrico De Nicola (Neapolitan) was president at the same time, just after the war. In the 80s they had Ciriaco De Mita (Campanian).

    Presumably DeSantis' family compressed it to avoid the problems that multi-word surnames would otherwise cause in countries where they aren't common (ie does Mr De Santis' surname start with a D or an S?)

  12. Victor Mair said,

    June 7, 2023 @ 7:14 am

    John DeFrancis, whom we have often mentioned on Language Log for his important work on Chinese language pedagogy, lexicography, orthography, sociolinguistics, etc. Even though he was a close, dear friend of mine for half a century, I often had to look up whether to write "De Francis" or "de Francis" or "DeFrancis" (the "correct" way), and people pronounced it "de", "dih", "deh", "dee"….

  13. sara said,

    June 8, 2023 @ 12:46 am

    "The translation [of de sanctis] in standard Italian would be di santi (with or without a space)" No, it would be "dei santi". And e.g. the de' Medici had an apostrophe where the i was elided. So that might be another explanation: Dei Santi -> De' Santi -> De Santi.

  14. Stephen Goranson said,

    June 16, 2023 @ 8:08 am

    From another dei,
    Azariah dei Rossi, Azariah min-Ha'adumim,
    sixteenth-century scholar,
    author of Me'or Enayim,
    Light of the Eyes.

  15. James Kabala said,

    June 16, 2023 @ 10:23 pm

    Very late to the convo, but long before DeSantis, I wondered about Santorum, which similarly seems to be an Italianized form of a Latin case, in this case the genitive. In this case it hardly registers as an Italian name at all. And it seems there is an interesting footnote – checking Wikipedia, which was not available in Santorum's heyday, we learn that his father actually came from Trentino, an atypical origin point for a U.S. immigrant. The German word for saint (Heilige) is completely different, but could there be any German influence on the form of the name?

  16. loonquawl said,

    June 19, 2023 @ 4:35 am

    I noticed many news&entertainment professionals in the US pronouncing the name of the floridian governor 'Dee/Duh-SanCtis', i.e. inserting a whole letter – can someone explain what that is about? Is that a play on the 'deSanctimonius' slur, or simply an oversight on the part of the speakers? Is 'de sanctis' as a Latin phrase perhaps on the tip of their lips for some reason, is that (part of) a phrase that is thrown around frequently?

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