Saturday, February 16, 2013

language Nazi hunter

If there's anything a language Nazi loves doing, it's taking down other language Nazis. On my Twitter feed, I saw that Manhattan Prep just linked to an article by Amanda Green at titled "11 Common Words You're Probably Mispronouncing." While the article's premise is interesting, the article itself either (a) gets the facts wrong or (b) doesn't indicate that you're actually mispronouncing the word in question. I'm going to reprint the article below, with my comments and criticisms appearing in red. Shall we begin?

11 Common Words You're Probably Mispronouncing
Amanda Green

Ever feel embarrassed when you don't know how to say a word? Don't be. Even the most fluent English speakers—and, ahem, political figures—stumble. Besides, pronunciations change over time. See if you've been mispronouncing these common words.

1. Seuss

Pen names don't always make things easier. Theodore Geisel's college buddy Alexander Liang made a rhyme to teach you the right way to pronounce it:

"You’re wrong as the deuce/And you shouldn’t rejoice/
If you’re calling him Seuss/He pronounces it Soice" (or Zoice).

KEVIN'S COMMENT: The moment I saw "Seuss," I knew that Green was going to offer "Soice" as the correct pronunciation. It is German, after all. I've rhymed "Seuss" with "Zeus" since childhood, so perhaps I stand corrected. I've never heard a recording of the man pronouncing his own name, though, so I'd say the jury's out until I hear that recording.

2. Kibosh

Let's put the kibosh, pronounced "KY-bosh," on saying this word like "kuh-BOSH."

KEVIN'S COMMENT: Wrong. "kuh-BOSH" is perfectly legitimate. Check your sources before writing, Amanda!

3. Celtic

An initial hard (k) sound is the standard, but linguists say the (s) sound emerged as far back as the 17th century. Still, you'll sound ridiculous (but correct!) if you bring that hard (k) to a Boston Celtics basketball game.

KEVIN'S COMMENT: I have no idea what Amanda is saying here. So is "seltik" a mispronunciation or not? The only thing that's clear is that the team is called the "seltix," probably because they're so popular they sell tix.

4. Comptroller

This word sounds just like "controller." If you're tempted to pronounce that silent (pt), please comptroll yourself!

KEVIN'S COMMENT: Not so obvious. See here. (And didn't Amanda spoil the joke by writing "comptroll" with two Ls?)

5. Cache

Maybe it's because it's one letter short of "cachet." Maybe it's just more fun to mispronounce. This words [sic] sounds just like "cash."

KEVIN'S COMMENT: Huzzah! No disagreement here. Personally, I'm annoyed by people who rhyme "cache" with "sashay." A cache is a stash, and should rhyme with stash.

"Cache" rhyme with "stash"
Stash your cash in a cache
But if say "cashay,"

6. Chicanery

This word meaning "deception by trickery" is aptly tricky to pronounce. The beginning (ch) sound is "sh," as in "Chicago." The French pronounce the word "shih-connery," which makes it easy to remember the definition. However, Americans love a long (a) and tend to pronounce it "shih-cane-a-ree." Choose your own adventure.

KEVIN'S COMMENT: So... "Choose your own adventure" means... no one's actually mispronouncing this word? Then why the fuck list it?

7. Banal

You'll be the butt of the joke if you pronounce this "BAY-nul." It's "buh-NAHL."

KEVIN'S COMMENT: Lusciously, sexily wrong. See here. Mnemonic: Going anal is never banal.

8. Affluent

If pronouncing it "a-FLU-ent" is wrong, some people don't want to be right. The stress on this word is supposed to be on the first syllable—"AFF-lu-ent." But stressing the second syllable became so mainstream that dictionaries started validating the pronunciation in the 1980s.

KEVIN'S COMMENT: So, uh... what's the verdict, Amanda? You sound like a disappointed prescriptivist. If so, I sympathize: I, too, stress the first syllable, and am sad about the mainstreaming of this second-syllable mispronunciation. But reality moves out from under our feet, so hard-line prescriptivism is impossible to justify. Metaphysically speaking.

9. Forbade

Pronunciation quirks and mistakes happen when people try to read and speak by the rules. Too bad the English language doesn't always make sense. The past tense of "forbid" was originally supposed to be spelled and pronounced "for-bad." But then people started spelling it "forbade" and rhyming it with "made." Now linguists say the word sounds archaic any way you say it. Most people use "forbid" as a past or present-tense verb.

KEVIN'S COMMENT: Again, I have to ask: what's the verdict? According to this source, "fer-BEYD" is legitimate.

10. Boatswain

Okay, so maybe this word's not that commonly used. But now that you know it's pronounced "bo-sun," you might find more reasons to work it into conversation.

KEVIN'S COMMENT: No dispute here. I never mess with brawny nautical men and their briny nautical terms.

11. Niche

When this word was borrowed from French in the 17th century, it was quickly Anglicized to rhyme with "itch." But in the 20th century, more people embraced a true French pronunciation and decided to pronounce it "neesh." Both are correct.

KEVIN'S COMMENT: So, once again, Amanda highlights a non-mispronunciation. Brava!

When I review the above list, I see that I have no disagreement on precisely two entries. Amanda Green! Don't go around telling people how to pronounce words until you've thoroughly checked your sources! Take it from a real language Nazi.

Speaking of language Nazis...



John from Daejeon said...

Wow, I still can't get over just how "uncommon" these words actually are?

Common implies that these words are used by most people all the time. It would appear that the author of this article is well-versed in the actual usage of "chicanery." Now, what are the odds that I will be able to use the other 10 words in casual conversation today, or even this week?

Joe Walther said...

One year, NPR did a story about how the Boston Celtics were changing the pronunciation of their name to use the 'proper' pronunciation--that of hard k at the beginning.

It wasn't until I was telling it to a friend the next day that I realized it was their annual April Fool's Day spoof article. Actually, I didn't realize it. My friend threw it back at me and had a laugh that lasted a couple of years.