Admitting to pronunciation mistakes is cathartic. Well, once you know the correct way to say the word, it is.
Readers have sent me some funny confessions.
One reader used a kid's logic in pronouncing "nostril." It's part of the nose, so it must be pronounced NOSE-tril, no? She later learned NAHZ-tril was the right way to say it.
The same reader used to say RE-spite instead of RESP-it when referring to a short rest after working hard. The word ends in "e," so many people would think that the "I" is long. But if the "e" weren't there, the word might look like it meant repeated spitting.
People make similar mistakes with the words "epitome" and "hyperbole." In English, we are used to trusting that when a word ends with an "e," the vowel before it is a long sound. We would often be deceived.
"Tome" is tohm. "Bole" is bohl. But epitome is e-PIT-i-mee. And hyperbole is hi-PER-bowl-ee.
One reader recalled, as a child, seeing a book on her mother's bookshelf titled Island Boy. She thought the first word was pronounced IS-land. It is, after all, the word "is" followed by the word "land."
One reader got tripped up by "minutiae." This is the plural for small, minor details. But because we say mi-NUTE to mean small, it seems right to say mi-NUT-ee-ay. Instead, it's mi-NU-sha.
"Misled" seems to have misled a couple of readers. They all pronounced miss-LED, which means to have deceived, as MY-zuld. One reader, upon hearing "misled" spoken correctly, thought it was just a synonym for MY-zuld. Again, youthful logic.
French words threw off one reader. He thought "ennui," or weary boredom, was pronounced en-you-eye. It's "ON-wee." And he thought "denouement," the outcome of a literary work, was dah-NOW-ment. Instead, it's day-new-MAH (with a subtle nasal "n" at the end).
I'm sure that French will always confuse people who don't speak French.
Duquesne University is another example. It was named for Duquesne de Menneville, a French soldier and governor. The word has so many letters, but how is it pronounced? Du-KANE.
One reader pronounced "idea" as "idear" — his pronunciation error spawned by a spelling error, not simply an accent. He thought the word was spelled with an "r" at the end, so he pronounced the "r." Later a friend talked him into checking the dictionary. I'm sure that, afterward, he took every opportunity to say, "I had no idea!'' The pronunciation is a bit hard to describe: i-DE-uh
One woman whose first language is Dutch learned how to pronounce "Kansas" first, then Arkansas. Doesn't it make sense that Arkansas would rhyme with Kansas? Guess again.
And "forte," as in someone's strength, is among my favorites because of its controversy. I was surprised to learn that Merriam-Webster and American Heritage Dictionary list different preferred pronunciations. Both have usage notes on the word, and I enjoy imagining the two groups shouting at each other (though that likely didn't happen).
Merriam-Webster says it's pronounced FORT, though it acknowledges that many people say for-TAY. The FORT version is from French. Most speakers of American English, though, say for-TAY, and almost three-quarters of the members of the Merriam-Webster usage panel chose to say for-TAY. Others on the panel say that for-TAY should be restricted to the Italian musical term meaning "loud."
American Heritage prefers the pronunciation for-TAY, but also admits that you'll hear about it if you say both syllables. They say adding the "TAY" incorrectly emphasizes the Italian influence. The forte from the French word would sound more like "for." This usage note says you should expect to be ridiculed either way, at least if you hang out with a tough grammar crowd.
Names are a constant conundrum, probably because we get names from so many languages. One reader wrote that Zoe and Chloe rhyme with each other: ZOH-ee and KLOH-ee. Both have Greek roots. Then why is Joe just JO? It's just short for Joseph, which comes to us from a few languages.
And now I come to the pronunciation of that planet, the seventh from the sun. I couldn't remember when I first learned about the planets, but I know that when I did, I learned it was pronounced ur-anus. Yes, that induces giggling. But I'm not sure that I noticed this in grade school.
I do remember seeing a movie about the planets later, on one of the school's ancient film projectors. And I thought that the narrator's pronunciation was hilarious: YERR-un-us.
That's how many scientists say it, though some people think it sounds like "urine us," which doesn't make much sense. Merriam-Webster prefers the YERR-un-us pronunciation. American Heritage prefers ur-anus.
I'm happy I don't teach kids about the planets. If I did, I would have wished the planet had gotten one of its other suggested names: Herschel.
Sources: Merriam-Webster, American Heritage Dictionary, Behind the Name, The Canadian Encyclopedia, Space.com
Style on 07/08/2019
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