The stress of fame

Things changed for me because of Hillary Clinton – for a time.

When I was growing up in 1960s New Zealand, the spelling of names was important. At primary school we played a game where someone called out a letter of the alphabet and those who had that letter in their name could take one step towards the finishing line. Knowing exactly how all our classmates spelled their names enabled the callers to make strategic decisions about what letters to call.

My given/Christian name Hilary was not so common, but it was well known because it was the same as the family/surname of our New Zealand icon Sir Edmund Hillary, who had climbed Sagarmatha/Chomolungma/Chu-mu-lang-ma Feng/Mt Everest in 1953 and whose picture was on our five dollar note from 1967. I was always at pains to point out that as a Christian name Hilary only had one ‘l’, which was different from Sir Ed’s spelling. So far so good.


When I went to live in Tonga, I discovered that the pronunciation of my name can be quite hard for people who speak languages which do not distinguish between ‘l’ and ‘r’. In Tongan I was variously called Hilary, Hiraly, Hilali, or Hirari. Also, Tongan words stress the second to last syllable, so the last sound was doubled and I was most often called Hila-Lee (phonemically /hiːlʌˈliː/ instead of /ˈhɪləriː/).

In my further travels to countries where Sir Ed was not so well-known, some people would struggle with my name. I got used to saying and spelling it out slowly and clearly.

But all that changed when Mrs Clinton became famous. Suddenly ‘our’ name was well known everywhere in the world, and jokes about my husband Bill were a small price to pay. She spells her name with a double ‘l’, so I gave up on my previous ‘rule’ – single or double, I do not care any more.

Recently in India, I encountered a new problem. We were introducing ourselves to someone who could not seem to catch my name. I tried to say it clearly, modifying my New Zealand vowels, but she was still puzzled. She had no problem with Steve’s name. ‘Steve is easy’, she said.

‘But it’s like Mrs Clinton – Hillary Clinton!’ I was quite surprised.

‘Oh!’ she answered, the light dawning. Then she explained, ‘We say Hil-AA-ry’. Again, the stress is on the second to last syllable (/hɪlˈɑːriː/), but this time making it sound so different that she could not recognise my pronunciation (and I would not easily recognise hers). So I will have to start a new personal survey for how my name is pronounced in different places. While Mrs Clinton is still famous.


  1. I remember the spelling game at school and yes it was quite strategic!
    With my surname I often get Tarita but I think that might be just messy hand writing? The most interesting one I’ ve had is Devito as in Danny!!


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