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Say It Again, Sam

It has been a while since our last pronunciation column, so here’s another group of familiar words whose traditional pronunciations may surprise you. (Note: capital letters denote a stressed syllable.)

Antarctica  Like the elusive first r in February, the first c in this word is often carelessly dropped: it’s ant-ARC-tica, not ant-AR-tica.

Err  Since to err is to make an error, it seems logical to say “air”—but who said English is logical? The correct way to say err is to rhyme it with her.

Inherent  Properly, in-HEER-ent. Most people say in-HAIR-ent, but that’s wrong and we can prove it: How do you say adherent?

Covert  Most say CO-vert, rhymes with overt. But it’s traditionally pronounced CUV-ert, as in “cover” plus a t. You may not hear CUV-ert much these days, but it is still listed in the 2011 American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.

Nuptial  It’s two syllables: NUP-shul. A lot of people, including many in the media, say NUP-shu-ul. How do they get “shu-ul” from tial?

Naiveté  Should be nah-eve-TAY. More and more broadcasters are polluting the airwaves by pronouncing this as a four-syllable word: ny-EVE-it-tay, ny-EVE-itty, or ny-EV-itty. The 1999 Webster’s New World dictionary lists only the three-syllable pronunciation, but the 2014 Webster’s New World has caved, giving the four-syllable alternatives unwarranted legitimacy. Charles Harrington Elster, in his Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations, calls the four-syllable variants “illogical.” Elster’s point: naive is two syllables, and is one syllable. Since when does two plus one equal four?

Margarine  Relax, you’re saying it right. But when it was coined by the French in the 1870s, margarine had the same first two syllables as Margaret and the third syllable rhymed with clean. Yes, believe it or not, people used to say MARG-a-reen—hard g, plus “een” on the end.

Our 1941 Webster’s New International Dictionary lists but two possible pronunciations for margarine, preferring MARJ-a-reen over MARG-a-reen. So seventy-four years ago, it was not usual for the third syllable to be pronounced “in” rather than “een.”

Twenty-seven years later, the 1968 edition of Random House’s American College Dictionary listed “marj” and “marg,” and said the final syllable could be pronounced either “in” or “een.” And as recently as 1980, the American Heritage Dictionary listed “marj” and “marg,” but by then “een” was gone.

Standard pronunciations evolve, and margarine has done more than its share of evolving over the last 140 years. But today “MARJ-a-rin” has won out.

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Posted on Monday, June 15, 2015, at 12:23 pm


Spell Check

You may recall that our inaugural spelling challenge last winter included all right, which has managed to ward off alright for decades now. As we noted at the time, the usage of alright “remains unacceptable across the board in serious writing.”

Since then we’ve discovered yet another adversary gunning for all right: films with subtitles. For whatever reason, subtitled films invariably insist on alright. We don’t know where films go to be subtitled, but apparently Subtitle Central has decided that alright’s time has arrived. We’ll see about that.

Meanwhile, here is the next in our occasional series of spelling tests. You’ll find the answers below—after you take the quiz, if you don’t mind.

1. The differences between them are ___, so take your pick.

A) minuscule
B) miniscule
C) minascule
D) minniscule

2. Many nutritionists claim honey mixed with ___ can help with weight loss.

A) cinnaman
B) cinammon
C) cinnammon
D) cinnamon

3. Living in that place was like being in a ___.

A) straitjacket
B) straightjacket
C) strait jacket
D) straight-jacket

4. A backyard ___ is what summer is all about.

A) barbeque
B) bar-B-Q
C) barbecue
D) A, B, and C are all correct.

5. The fire ___ is investigating a suspicious blaze.

A) marshall
B) marshal
C) marchal
D) marshill

6. The ___ choir sang like a band of angels.

A) a capella
B) a cappella
C) a capela
D) a cappela

7. These chemicals will help ___ the solution to the required purity.

A) rarify
B) rarrify
C) rariffy
D) rarefy

8. He handed me a metal ___ with a loose lid.

A) canaster
B) cannister
C) canister
D) cannaster

9. Bobby strummed his ___ as if his hand were on fire.

A) ukulele
B) ukalele
C) ukulale
D) ukalale

10. There’s a lot more to do in ___ than many New Yorkers suspect.

A) Cinncinatti
B) Cincinnati
C) Cinncinati
D) Cincinatti

 

ANSWERS

1: A) minuscule. Note that first u. A lot of people think the word is “miniscule.” And it makes sense that a word for tiny would have a mini in it. In this case, don’t think mini, think minus.

2: D) cinnamon

3: A) straitjacket. It’s commonly spelled with a straight, which is understandable. Wouldn’t a “straightjacket” be just the thing to straighten you up and straighten you out?

4: C) barbecue. People want to put a q where the c should be. The popular abbreviation, BBQ, doesn’t help matters.

5: B) marshal

6: B) a cappella. Most have no problem with the two l’s, but the double p’s are another matter.

7: D) rarefy

8: C) canister

9: A) ukulele. This word creates a lot of bother for such an elfin instrument.

10: B) Cincinnati

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Posted on Tuesday, May 26, 2015, at 6:09 pm


Proper Pronunciation: A Sound Policy

Pronouncing words correctly helps convince listeners that you know what you’re talking about.

By correct pronunciation, we mean words as you’d hear them enunciated at formal occasions: a lecture by an English scholar, say, or a first-rate production of a play by George Bernard Shaw or Eugene O’Neill.

To settle pronunciation disputes, we recommend an old dictionary. New ones are fine, but having access to an old one minimizes the intrusion of trendy (mis)pronunciations.

Also, those serious about their diction might want to pick up a copy of The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations by Charles Harrington Elster, who says in the book’s introduction: “I am not opposed to change. Such a position would be untenable. I am skeptical of ignorant, pompous, and faddish change. I am annoyed when people invent pronunciations for unfamiliar words. I am exasperated when they can’t be bothered to check the pronunciation of a word they look up in a dictionary.”

Here are ten familiar words whose traditional pronunciations may surprise you. Note: capital letters denote a stressed syllable.

Alleged  It must come as a shock to those in the media, but alleged is a two-syllable word. It is pronounced uh-LEJD, not uh-LEDGE-id.

Envelope  Though you’d never know it from what you hear over the airwaves, the preferred pronunciation of this word is ENN-va-lope, rather than the pseudo-French AHN-va-lope.

Controversial  Four syllables, not five. Say
contra-VER-shul, not contra-VER-see-ul.

Camaraderie  It’s a five-syllable word, but you usually hear only four. That letter a before the r should be a clue to say comma-ROD-ery, not com-RAD-ery.

Forte  When the word refers to a specialty or area of expertise (math is his forte), this is a one-syllable word pronounced fort. Most people mistakenly say for-tay. That pronunciation is only correct as a musical term. When forte is pronounced FOR-tay it means “loudly.”

Short-lived  This is not the lived of She lived well. The is long; short-lived rhymes with thrived.

Schism  It’s pronounced sizzum. The 1968 Random House American College Dictionary lists no alternative pronunciation. You rarely hear this word, but when you do, it’s generally pronounced skizzum, a pronunciation that, in Elster’s words, “arose out of ignorance.”

Integral  Why do so many people say in-tra-gul, despite the spelling? Make it IN-ta-grul.

Homage  A reviewer called a film “a homage to motherhood.” The critic wisely did not write “an homage,” knowing that the h is sounded. This word has spun out of control in the twenty-first century. Its traditional pronunciation is HOMM-ij. But then AHM-ij gained a foothold, and it went downhill from there. Now, just about all one hears is oh-MAHZH, an oh-so-precious pronunciation that was virtually nonexistent in English until late in the twentieth century.

Pronunciation  As the spelling indicates, it’s pronounced pra-nun-see-AY-shun. Too many careless speakers say pra-nown-see-AY-shun.

Most words have been around longer than any of us have. Pronouncing them properly is showing respect for our elders.

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Posted on Friday, March 27, 2015, at 7:18 am


Spell Check

Nothing can bring down a beautifully written sentence quite the way a misspelled word can. So today we are presenting the first in a series of intermittent spelling quizzes.

True, there are many other spelling tests available online. But can you trust them? The Internet, for all the blessings it bestows, is a compulsive fibber that wants you to believe that toilets in Australia flush backwards.

We checked five online spelling sites, and three were above reproach. As for the other two, one introduced itself like this: “These lists include 540 of the most frequently misspell words …” Would you have confidence in a spelling website that misspelled misspelled?

The other errant site offered a quiz which claimed that “inflammation of the membrane of the brain” is spelled “meningitas” (should be meningitis) and that “a precious stone of a sky-blue color” is spelled “turquiose” (the correct spelling is turquoise, it’s a semiprecious stone, and it’s sometimes green).

Admittedly the sample size was small, but two fishy spelling websites out of five convinced us that we have an obligation to do this right. Our quizzes will be, above all, practical—no snob words or technical jargon.

So let’s get started, and no fair peeking at the answers just below …

1. The ___ in our county fought in two wars.

A) sherriff
B) sherrif
C) sheriff

2. Good dental ___ prevents tooth loss.

A) hygiene
B) hygene
C) hygeine

3. This is a suggestion ___ of pure frustration.

A) born
B) borne
C) bourn

4. I think that $50 bill is ___.

A) counterfit
B) counterfeit
C) counterfiet

5. The board voted to ___ new standards in language arts.

A) adapt
B) adept
C) adopt

6. She witnessed the incident ___.

A) first hand
B) firsthand
C) first-hand

7. ___ lights are ideal for kitchens.

A) Florescent
B) Flourescent
C) Fluorescent

8. I hope you’re feeling ___ about our agreement.

A) all right
B) alright
C) allright

9. I will let you know tomorrow, ___?

A) all right
B) alright
C) allright

10. Martin Luther King Jr. was inspired by Mahatma ___.

A) Ghandi
B) Gandhi
C) Ghandhi

 

ANSWERS

1: C) sheriff

2: A) hygiene

3: A) born. The suggestion is born of (i.e., springs from or is created by) pure frustration.

4: B) counterfeit. An exception to “i before e except after c.”

5: C) adopt

6: B) firsthand. The 1969 Random House American College Dictionary lists first-hand, but by 1980, the American Heritage dictionary, with its panel of experts, had it firsthand—one word with no hyphen. That is the standard spelling today.

7: C) Fluorescent

8: A) all right. The phrase all right has warded off alright for countless decades. Despite the fiercest efforts of the semi-educated, alright remains unacceptable across the board in serious writing.

9: A) all right (see 8)

10: B) Gandhi

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Posted on Tuesday, February 24, 2015, at 12:32 pm


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