(NYTimes) - Is a gangsta the same as a gangster?
For Nick Spicher, a museum educator from Everett, Washington, it's no minor matter of dialect. His pronunciation cost him a US$1,600 answer on his Jeopardy! appearance on Monday, and the show's decision has since been hotly debated.
The category was "Music and literature before and after", requiring contestants to link two separate titles by a common word. The clue read: "A song by Coolio from Dangerous Minds goes back in time to become a 1667 John Milton classic."
"What is Gangster's Paradise Lost," Spicher answered, seemingly correctly.
"Yes," Alex Trebek responded.
But soon, the host delivered bad news. "Our judges have re-evaluated one of your responses a few moments ago, Nick," Trebek said. "You said 'gangster's' instead of 'gangsta's' on that song by Coolio, so we take 3,200 away from you."
Indeed, the chart-topping 1995 song is titled Gangsta's Paradise, not Gangster's Paradise. Spicher dropped from first place with US$12,000 to second place with US$8,800.
In its official blog, Jeopardy! offered its explanation.
"Although Nick's response of Gangster's Paradise Lost was initially accepted, the hard R sound caught the ear of one member of the onstage team, who immediately followed up with a quick check," the blog post said. "It turns out that 'gangsta' and 'gangster' are both listed separately in the Oxford English Dictionary, each with its own unique definition. Nick changed not only the song's title, but also its meaning - making his response unacceptable."
Sure enough, the Oxford English Dictionary defines gangster as "a member of a criminal gang, esp. one involved in organised crime", while it defines gangsta as "a member of an urban territorial gang". Alison Shapiro, a spokesman for the show, said producers did not consider it a matter of pronunciation or dialect.
"Had we accepted 'gangster', the other contestants would have a very good reason to complain, in that the title of the song is Gangsta's Paradise, and we would have accepted something that is not the title," the producers said, according to Shapiro. "Every ruling we make not only affects the contestant who responded, but their opponents as well."
But another leading authority came to Spicher's defence: Coolio told TMZ he thought the answer should have counted.
"I probably would have gave it to him," the rapper said.
But he also offered a linguistic lesson.
"This is for white people," he said. "The E-R will always get you in trouble."
There is a history of Jeopardy! judges being sticklers for pronunciation. In 2015, Rob Russell's game unravelled on a US$2,000 Daily Double because he pronounced "foliage" as "foilage", a common regionalism that was once mocked on The Simpsons. In February 2016, Bill Murphy was originally given credit for naming France's second-busiest seaport as Le Havre, but it was overturned because he pronounced it in a way that rhymes with the former Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre.
In October 2017, six-time winner Austin Rogers got an US$800 question wrong because he pronounced "sherbet" as "sherbert". "I'm from New York. That's how we say it," he responded.
It all raises the question: Whose pronunciation does Jeopardy! consider to be correct? When it comes to Americans, y'all, youse and you guys talk differently.
Andy Saunders, who runs The Jeopardy! Fan site, said the judges "often expect general American pronunciation in the general American dialect".
He couldn't recall any times contestants were penalised because of accents, but pronunciations are a frequent topic of debate among the show's die-hard fans. Earlier in Monday's episode, there was some dispute over how a contestant pronounced another music/literature mash-up: "will.i.ambic pentameter," he said.
As for the gangsta/gangster mix-up, he agreed with the judges. Titles must be exact, and the two words do have slightly separate meanings, he said.
"Coolio thought that the judges should have given it to him, but I'm also not entirely sure Coolio is completely aware of Jeopardy!'s rule book," he said.
The dispute ended up having little impact on Spicher's game; he still triumphed, and he most likely would have won the same amount of money because he would have bet differently in the final round, Saunders said.
On Twitter, Spicher appeared to have a sense of humour about it. He said producers stopped taping "for what felt like an eternity" before an executive producer came on stage to explain the ruling to him.
"That's partly why I didn't have much of a reaction on camera," he said.
At first he thought: "Didn't I say 'gangsta'?" But he figured they had listened closely enough to come up with a definitive answer.
"They had every right to call me out on it," he said. "And I will be forever proud of the moment that Alex Trebek taught me how to say 'gangsta'."