Once again, gentle readers, you are being duped by the mainstream news media. The question facing America is not, no matter what Fox News or CNN or other news outlets might claim, “Is Dr. Seuss being canceled?” (He’s not.) The question facing America is “Have you been pronouncing Dr. Seuss’ name wrong your entire life?”
The answer to that question is yes, you have. Dr. Seuss does not rhyme with goose. Dr. Seuss is a German name with a German pronunciation, and it rhymes with Joyce.
Take a deep breath. I know it’s hard to have the ground pulled out from underneath you like this, to have your long-held beliefs overturned. But it’s a strength, not a weakness, to be able to recontextualize the past, to understand it anew from our hopefully more enlightened vantage point. And that’s what we must do with Dr. Seuss’ name, which, as I’ve said, is actually pronounced Soice.
From the beginning of his career, Theodor “Ted” Geisel signed his middle name, Seuss, to his cartoons. His first steady job as a cartoonist was for the popular humor magazine Judge, and, faintly embarrassed about the silliness of the work, he wanted to “keep the name of Geisel clean,” he later wrote in his college’s alumni magazine, in case he ever were to “write the Great American Novel.” By April 1928 he was signing cartoons “Dr. Seuss,” the Dr. a tribute to the advanced degree he never earned. (He’d recently left Oxford short of his D.Phil.)
That middle name came courtesy of his mother, Henrietta “Nettie” Seuss, whose parents had emigrated to Springfield, Massachusetts, from Bavaria. She was 6 feet tall, an accomplished diver, and “a crack shot with a rifle,” according to Brian Jay Jones’ Becoming Dr. Seuss. She pronounced her name, as her son Ted did his middle name, Germanically—“soice,” or honestly if we’re going full German 101, “zoice.”
By 1937, the year Geisel published his first children’s book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (now one of the six titles his estate has chosen not to continue publishing, due to its racist imagery), Dr. Seuss was already fairly well known, thanks to his Judge cartoons, his long-running ads for the insecticide Flit, and his illustrations for two bestselling books, Boners and More Boners. (They were goofy collections of accidentally funny undergrad writing, and we can only assume they are also not being published these days for similar reasons.) But most everyone who knew the name mispronounced it in the unsophisticated American style. A college classmate even made hay of the mispronunciation in an affectionate verse review of Mulberry Street in the Dartmouth alumni magazine:
You’re wrong as the deuce
And you shouldn’t rejoice
If you’re calling him Seuss.
He pronounces it Soice.
Over the years, Geisel simply went along with the mispronunciation. Louis Menand, in the New Yorker, suggests he did so because it “evoked a figure advantageous for an author of children’s books to be associated with—Mother Goose.” It also seems possible to me that Geisel, who told stories of being taunted as “the Kaiser” by classmates during World War I, may have been grateful not to be tagged with an audibly German name during World War II.
But we’re in the age of righting historical wrongs, and it’s time to give Theodor Geisel his name back. Dr. Seuss may have published both racist and anti-racist work, as Philip Nel, author of Was the Cat in the Hat Black?, pointed out on Slate’s The Gist podcast, but he certainly did not deserve to have his name de-Germanified by provincial Americans for his entire life.*
It’s particularly outrageous that the commentators on Fox News, who supposedly revere Dr. Seuss so much that his purported cancellation requires hours of coverage, can’t even bother to pronounce the man’s name correctly. Come on, Steve Doocy. Respect the man! Respect the work! Say his name right! From here on out, I will only be pronouncing Seuss to rhyme with my own name, Kois.
Say it loud, say it proud: Seuss!
Rejoice! It’s Seuss!
Make the choice …. to say it Seuss!
Dr. Seuss … clearly the Rolls-Royce of uncomfortably dated midcentury children’s book authors!
See? It just rolls off the tongue. You may find it odd, at first, but soon, if we all adopt this nomenclature, we’ll forget we ever called this seminal, problematic author by any other name. So come on, lovers of children’s books, lovers of America. If you truly want to honor Theodor Geisel, it’s time to raise your voice and say it Seuss.
Correction, March 3, 2021: This piece originally misidentified Nel’s book Was the Cat in the Hat Black? as Is the Cat in the Hat Black?