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School Is Agog At People Who Cheer Zawgs

If St. Aloysius Gonzaga would have had any foresight four centuries ago, he might have taken a few moments off from battling the black plague and changed his surname to something sportscasters of the future could pronounce.

Now that Gonzaga has become a national office-pool curiosity, with the school’s first berth in the NCAA basketball tournament, it’s become clear to those at the university that virtually no one east of the Bitterroots can say “Gon-ZAG-a.”

“Since we won the (West Coast Conference) tournament, we’ve had probably close to 100 calls from media around the country, and I bet easily 50 percent say ‘Gon-ZAWG-a,”’ said Oliver Pierce, GU’s sports information director. “In fact, easily 90 percent of the calls east of say, Missoula, Mont., say it wrong.”

The mispronunciation even is prevalent among people who should know better, Pierce said, such as in towns where the Zags frequently play.

“The PA guy at Loyola (Marymount), who has been around for 15 or 20 years, still says it ‘GonZAWG-a,’ and I tell him every time about it, but it does no good,” Pierce said.

At last year’s WCC tournament in Santa Clara, Calif., Pierce - no doubt ticked that the team was trailing San Diego by 18 points at the time - finally snapped when the announcer pulled the Zawg trick.

“I told him, if you have any phonetic sense at all, zag is zag; where do they get Zawg? If you learned English in the first grade, you’ve been saying ‘zigzag’ since you were 6 years old,” Pierce said.

“I’ve thought about mailing releases in brown paper bags with the pronunciation on it, ‘ZAG as in BAG.”’

After hearing Chris Fowler give it the GonZAWG-a treatment on ESPN on March 6 before the broadcast of the WCC title game, Pierce called the station to avoid further mutilations of the name. “I told them I’m not calling to be a jerk, but I don’t want people in the Northwest, who know how to pronounce it, thinking that ESPN is a bunch of idiots.”

While Gon-ZAG-a is the pronunciation of preference at the university, the Gon-ZAWG-a version may be based in sound linguistic theory.

Perry Higman, a language professor at Eastern Washington University, said that Gon-ZAWG-a would have been the way the Jesuit priest would have said his name centuries ago in Italy.

“Gon-ZAG-a is an Anglicism of it,” Higman said. “But if Gon-ZAG-a is the way the school pronounces it, people should learn it and get it right.”

The problem goes beyond simple mispronunciation, as the attributes of the small Jesuit school are not exactly high in the nation’s consciousness.

Last year, Pierce mentioned Bing Crosby, John Stockton and Tom Foley when asked by a television announcer to list the most famous alumni.

“I know Crosby and Stockton,” said the announcer, who had nice hair but not much beneath it. “But who is this Foley guy?”

National exposure in the NCAA opener against Maryland on Thursday might go a long way toward clearing up the confusion - Pierce hopes.

“Maybe we just should have named ourselves Spokane University,” Pierce said. “But then, of course, everybody would call us SpoCAINE.”