In the original Star Wars, Princess Leia’s name is uttered three times: once by Governor Tarkin, once by C-3PO, and once by General Dodonna. They all pronounce it “lee-uh.”
So why is it that the whole world was saying “lay-uh” almost immediately after the film’s release, and how did that become the accepted pronunciation by the time of The Empire Strikes Back three years later?
Maybe it’s Mad magazine’s fault for calling her Princess Laidup in their parody. Maybe the fact that her last name sounds close to “orgasma” reinforces certain mental associations. Maybe Donny and Marie’s contemporaneous film, Goin’ Coconuts, had everyone thinking about Hawaiian leis.
Maybe it’s just that most people inexplicably saw the movie fewer than twenty times in 1977 and didn’t commit the entire soundtrack to memory. Well I’m not one of them, and I don’t care how many awesome “lay-uh” puns there are, I’m sticking with lee-uh.
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As you point out, it was probably because the joke Hawaiian princess Kamani Wana Leia had already occupied some region of the collective subconscious (with her close friends Dick Hertz, Seymour Butts, and Yu Hong Lo.)
In fact, I’d bet that the LEE-ya pronunciation was deliberately chosen and enforced on-set, specifically to counter those associations. All in vain.
I’m sure some Freudian in the 70’s wrote a very long paper about George Lucas’ preadolescent fantasies of rescuing Princess Lay-You Orgasma, dressed in pure sparkling white outfits, even after being trapped in the hot, cramped sewage system. And then she turns out to be his sister.
And don’t get me started on the robot advancing menacingly on the tied-up princess, sporting a long, sharp injector with a drip leaking from the end. I’m surprised that one got by the MPAA’s ratings board.