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Are Two r‘s One Too Many?

Here we are, in the month that’s hard to spell and harder to pronounce. Every year I grit my teeth listening to the bizarre ways people mangle “February.” The culprit is that first r. Most people just ignore it and say “Feb-yoo-ary.”

The 2006 American Heritage dictionary has a “Usage Note” at “February” that made my brain squirm the first time I read it: “the variant pronunciation [Feb-yoo-ary] … is quite common in educated speech and is generally considered acceptable. The loss of the first r in this pronunciation can be accounted for by the phonological process known as dissimilation, by which similar sounds in a word tend to become less similar.”

Oh, I grumbled. Now I’m expected to believe that a blatant mispronunciation is not simply
sloppy—no, don’t you see, it’s a phonological process, dear boy.

This is the kind of thing that gives scholarship a bad name. At least that was my initial reaction. Don’t get me wrong, I still believe “Feb-roo-ary” is the way to go, but there might be more to this dissimilation business than I originally recognized. Take a look at other instances …

Library  Just about every schoolchild who ever lived has said “lie-berry,” and some say it well into their teens. The similarity of this word to February can’t be overlooked.

Roller coaster   I have heard sane adults say they went on the “rolly coaster.”

Kindergarten  Come on, admit it, you or someone you know says “kin-dee-garten.” You’re as likely to hear it from parents as from kin-dee-gartners themselves.

Peripheral  It’s quite common to hear things like, “When I was a young player, I learned to use my periph-ee-al vision.”

All four of the previous examples are words in which the r’s cause the difficulty. But other consonants can create similar problems …

Probably  A lot of, uh, dissimilators pronounce it “prob-lee.”

Et cetera (etc.)  Many smart, educated people botch, er, dissimilate the first t, and say “eck settera” rather than “et.”

I don’t know if the next two examples count as “textbook” dissimilation, but a curious thing happens with certain double-c’s:

Succinct  Everyone says “suh-sinkt.” When was the last time you heard someone correctly pronounce it “suk-sinkt”? Well, why else are there two c’s? You don’t say “secede” when you mean succeed.

Flaccid  Again, most people overlook one of those c’s. The widespread mispronunciation is “flassid”; the correct pronunciation is “flaxid.”

But I’ve been saving the best for last. Can anyone explain the silent c in Connecticut? All I’ve been able to dig up is that the state got its name from quinnitukqut, a Mohican word meaning “beside the long tidal river.” So where does the second c in Connecticut come from? Note that it’s quinnitukqut, not quinnictukqut.

Maybe, when nobody was looking, some prankster, perhaps one of the ringleaders of Dissimilation Theory, sneaked in that middle c, daring anyone to pronounce it.

Tom Stern

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Posted on Tuesday, February 3, 2015, at 3:45 pm


Resolutions for Word Nerds

Below you’ll find ten New Year’s resolutions for self-appointed guardians of the English language. We are a group that needs its own code of ethics to protect us from ourselves and shield others from our self-righteousness. So let’s get right to …

The Stickler’s Ten Commandments

1) No using big words to intimidate. You can’t beat a polysyllabic onslaught for sounding authoritative. But laying big words on someone who may not be as educated as you are is just shabby.

2) No correcting someone’s English in an argument. It’s the wrong time to do it. When someone makes a valid point, picking on that person’s language is a cop-out, and a contemptible way of gaining the upper hand.

3) Do it in private. If a person you care about says “irregardless,” it can be a thoughtful gesture to gently advise that there is no such word—but don’t do this when others are within earshot.

4) No condescending preambles. If you have some wisdom to impart, don’t start with “Didn’t you know,” or “I can’t believe you just said,” or “How can someone from your background …” Such statements sound uncomfortably close to “I’m smart and you’re not.”

5) Casual conversation gets a lot of leeway. Public figures are rightly under scrutiny when they’re speaking or writing on the record. Even private citizens may be held accountable, not just for what they say but for how they say it, in a meeting or serious discussion. However, the language police ought to back way off in settings where people are just relaxing and making small talk. At such times, perfect grammar is probably the last thing anyone should worry about. No one ever mistook a Super Bowl party for a summit conference.

6)  And no correcting playful correspondence, either. If you get an email that says, “I didn’t mean nuttin’ by it,” your correspondent is kidding around. What is friendship without informality and levity? And what kind of a sourpuss would point out that “nothing”was misspelled and that double negatives are bad grammar?

7) Know what you’re talking about. Before you correct someone, how do you know you’re right? There are many myths about “proper” English floating around. Here are three discredited rules that a lot of people think are true: Never end a sentence with a preposition. (Yes you can.) It’s wrong to split an infinitive. (No it’s not.) The relative pronoun that cannot refer to a human, so always say “the person who called,” never “the person that called.” (Utter nonsense.) If you believe even one of these superstitions, you see the problem.

8) Look it up. Good writers choose their words with utmost care. So you can’t go wrong with a dictionary nearby. Many people believe they needn’t look up a strange word. They are deluding themselves. Suppose a critic you respect refers to a book’s “meretricious manifestation of sophism.” The word meretricious sounds a lot like meritorious; and sophism brings to mind sophisticated. Having seen the review, you are eager to purchase and read this admirable, stylish work—not realizing that the critic has denounced the book as lurid and devious rubbish.

9) No excuses when you slip. Two can play this game, professor. We all make mistakes. If someone busts you, don’t try to wiggle out of it.

10) No correcting strangers. Keep it to yourself; it’s the Wild West out there.

Tom Stern

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Posted on Tuesday, January 6, 2015, at 4:01 pm


2014 Christmas ’Log Review

Have you noticed that Christmas is in the air? I started noticing in October, when I received my first Christmas catalog eleven days before the start of the World Series.

New ones have been arriving ever since, filled with gift ideas so remarkable that I just can’t keep them to myself.

The Hammacher Schlemmer catalog, replete with high thread counts and decadent relaxation devices, is always on the technological cutting-edge—we’re living in the age of the voice-interactive coffee maker and the talking wristwatch. For the discreet creep, there are the “video camera pen” and the “video recording sunglasses.” Merry golfers will go for the “drink-dispensing golf club,” which pours an ounce of booze per second from a spout in the club head. After a few pops, the “golf ball locating glasses” may come in handy. These ungainly-looking goggles find that lost ball even as they identify anyone wearing them as a dork. The catalog is laden with pseudo-sophisticated phrases like “an ubiquitous ritual,” apparently written by someone who’s never said “ubiquitous.”

The Frontgate catalog got my attention with “100s of best-made gifts” instead of “hundreds” and “1,000s” instead of “thousands.” That just looks silly. Otherwise, a tasteful brochure, filled with good ideas. This isn’t one of them: a $500 treadmill—for pets. How will I ever get Rover to use his treadmill when mine was gathering dust six weeks after I bought it?

Among Gump’s tree ornaments is a comely reindeer wearing a chic cocktail gown. And what brightens up a Christmas tree more than an exquisite hand-blown … fried egg on toast?!?

Grandinroad has some interesting entries in the ornament sweepstakes, including blown-glass kitties in bow ties and terriers in tutus. But this year’s undisputed champion of all ornaments is Grandinroad’s kissing fish. The fish has big blue eyes with coquettish long lashes, and puckering, collagen-pillow lips ablaze with a garish smear of scarlet lipstick. A tank of famished piranhas might not be as festive but would certainly be less disturbing.

The catalog of the Smithsonian Institution devotes two pages to its Jacqueline Kennedy Collection, including the “Jackie Kennedy Sunglasses” and the “Dual Faux Pearl Floral Leaf Pierced Earrings.” Do we even want to know who out there still sports the Jackie look?

Finally, a holiday quiz. What do these words culled from Christmas catalogs refer to: carbide, cinder, daybreak, eclipse, fig, flag, fog, fossil, gargoyle, lava, lichen, lily pond, mallard, moonlight, muleskinner, Nero, oasis, picante, saddle, sprig, thunder, tobacco. Hint: they’re not rejected first names for Sarah Palin’s kids. They’re colors!?! … “Remember our first Christmas, darling? You were standing in my muleskinner foyer, your mallard hair perfectly matching your gargoyle dress. I wore tobacco slacks and a Nero tie with fossil stripes to complement the warm earth tones of my carbide cape.”

Tom Stern

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Posted on Tuesday, December 9, 2014, at 12:07 am


Wisdom of Yogi Berra

April means major-league baseball is back, so I want to talk about Yogi Berra, who played for the New York Yankees from 1946 to ’63, when they were perennial World Series champs. His name is familiar to everyone. He has given the culture more memorable epigrams than have some of our most esteemed wits. I rarely go a week without hearing “It’s déjà vu all over again” or “It ain’t over till it’s over,” two of Yogi’s greatest hits.

Berra, who is about to turn 89, grew up in a working-class neighborhood in St. Louis. Because he talks like a kid off the streets, he is often mistaken for a lovable idiot. However, his best sayings have a profundity that belies such an appraisal. Yogi has been blessed with a wit and wisdom both rare and sublime.

Oh, please, you say, he’s a semiliterate goon who spent his adult life reading comic books and playing a child’s game. All I can say is, talent doesn’t discriminate between rich and poor, or educated and uneducated. As surely as were Mark Twain and Will Rogers, Yogi the everyman philosopher-poet has been given a rare gift. His vision—and the unique way he expresses it—allows us to see the world with fresh eyes.

Berra’s formula is elegantly simple: He establishes a premise and then promptly sabotages it, making listeners squirm until they recognize the unmistakable logic, even insight, behind the thicket of nonsense. It’s that last-second rescue of sagacity from absurdity that generates our laughter.

If you meet someone who’s unfamiliar with Yogi’s sayings and you want to get a sure-fire laugh, just repeat his classic “Ninety percent of baseball is half mental.” People dismiss this line as laughably absurd because of the Berra “formula,” which in this instance creates a “90 percent/half” comical paradox. But a closer look reveals the remark as a baseball verity: physical prowess alone isn’t enough.

Here’s how I’d say it: “If you want to succeed at baseball, in nine cases out of ten staying focused while banishing doubts and distractions from the mind is half the battle.” Note that I needed four times as many words as Yogi did. His unforgettable seven-word one-liner imparts its Zen-like philosophy with none of the heavy-handedness of my paraphrase.

That attitude is echoed in one of his less-quoted declarations: “I ain’t in no slump; I just ain’t hitting.” It’s a funny line because a hitter who isn’t hitting is, by most people’s definition, in a “slump.” But Yogi was serious. To him, it wasn’t that simple—over the long season, hitters go through spells when they’re unsuccessful, but a slump is something more insidious. It’s a mental malfunction, an expectation to fail. You’re never “in no slump” if you believe in yourself.

Another great Yogi-ism concerned a trendy restaurant: “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” Remember, this man was sports royalty, a star player in a legendary organization at the peak of its success. Make no mistake: Berra meant, “Nobody who matters goes there anymore,” though he is too much of a gentleman to have said it out loud. (It also would have spoiled the beauty of the “nobody goes there/too crowded” paradox.)

Later in Berra’s career, he switched from catcher to left fielder. Around World Series time one year, speaking of the difficulty of fielding in the autumn darkness, he said, “It gets late early out there.” That’s vintage Yogi: the paradox, the concision. Six everyday words that rise almost to poetry.

Last month Yogi’s wife of sixty-five years died. He isn’t seen around much anymore. But his wacky-wise adages will always be with us.

Tom Stern

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Posted on Sunday, April 6, 2014, at 9:48 am


Cheap Talk Can Cost You

A word nerd’s burden: someone said to me, “I guess I can’t say anything around you.” It was a lighthearted remark … I hope.

Saying is far different from writing, and the spoken word deserves a lot more leniency. I don’t want people to think I go around rating everyone’s conversational acumen, waiting to pounce. That’s not my style. Besides, I don’t always speak standard English either. Sometimes it’s more fun not to.

However, it’s different when someone misspeaks over the airwaves. Even if it’s a talk show featuring casual chit-chat, lots of people are tuned in, and the participants must not forget Rule One of being on the air: Watch what you say and how you say it.

So when a great athlete—I’ll call him “E.J.”—declares in front of a national audience: “Kenny and Charles is both right. They shoulda did it another way,” civilized people rightly cringe. Other more-articulate athletes squirm. Parents scowl, aware that this man is a role model for their kids. Teachers worry that their students will follow in his grammatical missteps.

This is not to disparage E.J., one of ten kids who grew up in a working-class family in the Midwest. Matching his physical genius with a relentless work ethic, he became a winner who played on five championship teams. When E.J. retired, he became as brilliant in business as he’d been in sports, and today he is one of the great rags-to-riches success stories in America.

Now why can’t this bright, accomplished man speak decent English? Kenny and Charles is? Shoulda did? Awful—and I don’t mean the shoulda, which I can live with when it’s spoken.

I’ve read that E.J. has someone on his payroll to monitor his verbal skills. If so, start earning your money, buster. On the other hand, some might say it really doesn’t matter anymore. Would better language skills have made E.J. more successful? Doubtful—you can’t get more successful.

Still, I keep thinking of that line from Citizen Kane: “It’s not difficult to make money … if all you want is to make money.” Is it too old-fashioned to think that “having it made” is about more than wealth and fame? There used to be something called class.

There is an annoying argument that good English is irrelevant if you get your point across. Sometimes it might be true, but there are other times when being articulate carries the day, and these may be some of the most significant times of your life: when you have to speak at a formal occasion, when you bare your soul to a friend or loved one, when you meet someone you’ve always respected and admired, when you’re interviewed for a dream job, when you have to make an important presentation, when you propose marriage …

Or how about when you’re in charge and it’s vital to establish your authority. There’s no harsher critic than a subordinate. Respect is never just given away; it must be earned. I was watching one of those inside-prison documentaries and a commotion broke out in the prison yard. A guard had to act fast to restore order. He barked out, “Get on your backs—face down!”

That’s anatomically impossible.

Such a remark can be costly after order is restored. I’ve no doubt that for a long time afterward, that guard was a source of wicked glee for the inmates.

Some occasions are too solemn for foolish language lapses. At a memorial service, a well-meaning soul remembered a renowned artist with these ill-advised words: “Although Michael achieved notoriety, he was a simplistic man.” What he meant was, “Although Michael achieved fame, he was a simple man.” Trying to convey Michael’s integrity and charm, the speaker instead called the dear departed notorious, and kind of a simpleton.

This person’s ineptitude was an affront to both the mind and the heart. Vain and insecure, he dumped fame for “notoriety,” a five-syllable blunder, and swapped simple for “simplistic,” another fancy-sounding but inappropriate word, which further undermined his entire tribute.

It can’t be said enough: Simplify, simplify, simplify.

Tom Stern

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Posted on Tuesday, March 11, 2014, at 6:50 pm