Were Any Pronunciations Close Enough on ‘Tricky’ Clue?

[Warning: The below contains MAJOR spoilers for the May 8 episode of Jeopardy!]

Pronunciation is everything on Jeopardy!, but there is a bit of debate over whether one contestant’s answer was actually enough in the latest episode.

Data scientist Hannah Wilson returned with a three-day total of $90,601 to compete against actuary Sami Casanova and psychiatrist Juveria Zaheer, and it was in the Double Jeopardy! round that all three were ruled incorrect due to pronunciation in the category “The Quotable Alex.”

The $1600 clue read, “An author & former prisoner: ‘Socialism of any type & shade leads to a total destruction of the human spirit.’” All three rang in with different pronunciations of the Russian writer Solzhenitsyn. “This is a tricky one to pronounce,” host Mayim Bialik acknowledged.

This led to some debate on Reddit not just about this specific case but in general when it comes to these situations. One user thought that Hannah’s “fit within the guideline of being reasonably supported by the spelling, so should have been accepted,” while another noted that the rule appears to be “if it’s phonetically reasonable, then they’ll give it to you, and vowel sounds are pretty flexible, but if you screw up the consonants, they’re going to rule against you.”

That user then explained why each contestant was ruled incorrect: Juveria’s second and fourth syllables were wrong; Sami made the same mistake on the second syllable; and Hannah’s mistake came on the last syllable. “It kind of sounded like she took the pronunciation of ‘Nietzsche’ for the 3rd and 4th syllables and put an n on the end,” the person wrote, adding that the fact that she was the last one to answer following other issues might have been a factor as well. (One fan even said that Hannah’s pronunciation is what they heard when he won the Nobel Prize in 1970.)

That user wasn’t the only one to call out Hannah’s specific mistake, but another noted, “ts and ch are sounds that I sometimes misspeak while speaking my native English, and given all of the other vagaries and variants that come with rendering Russian into English (Peter/Pyotr Tchaikovsky, e.g.), it feels arbitrary to insist upon certain consonant sounds.”

At least one person wondered if Solzhenitsyn has ever been said on the show in the past to compare this to and also brought up this setting “an awkward precedent for the future.”

And so viewers have started to suggest that Jeopardy! should “abandon these types of clues,” with one writing, “It’s one thing with clues that ask about translation of common French or Spanish words or idioms, but Russian has several letters that are difficult for Americans. (And I say that as someone who studied Russian).”

But since all three were penalized for their guesses and Hannah, whose pronunciation seems to have been the closest, still won with a wide margin — $13,000 to Sami’s $2 and Juveria’s $0 — and was the only one to get Final Jeopardy! correct, at least it didn’t potentially cost anyone the game.

See more reactions to that “tricky” clue.

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