In his book The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations, Charles Harrington Elster writes, “When it comes to pronunciation, there are two types of people: those who don’t give the subject a second thought and those who do. This book is for those who do.”
I wish I were a better steward of my education. I wish I had listened better, studied harder and retained more. Since 1973, I’ve made a living talking and so it has sort of been a natural progression for me to pay attention to words and how they’re used. Years back, my good friend Joe Langston gave me Elster's book and I’m surprised by how often I refer to it, especially when I hear a word pronounced differently than I think it ought to be. Elster writes that if you want to get into a good argument, just try correcting someone else’s pronunciation of a word.
I pronounce words incorrectly most every day. I have some kind folks who correct me from time to time and I sincerely appreciate it. I’ll never master our language, but I’m a work in progress and at least I’m getting better at finding new words to mangle and not repeat the same mistakes over and over again. Here are some examples of words that, according to Elster, are the most common beastly mispronunciations.
There’s no zoo in zoology, but there is a cow in Moscow. In zoology, the first syllable, zo- rhymes with go not with do. So, zoology should be correctly pronounced zoh-AHL-uh-jee. Meanwhile, the capital of the former Soviet Union is pronounced with the sound of cow by some and with a koh sound by others. Broadcasting has played a major role in the duel pronunciation of Moscow. Broadcasters from Peter Jennings to Ted Koppel have used the Mos-koh pronunciation. In his book Elster gives 5 pages to the ongoing debate about the correct pronunciation of Moscow.
Some other words are more definitive with little or no debate. If someone pronounces the L in salmon they’re just wrong. The L should never, ever be heard. Same goes for controversial. The correct pronunciation is KAHN-truh-VUR-shul not KAHN-truh-VUR-see-ul. I hear it spoken incorrectly almost every day on broadcast TV and radio.
Some of this has to do with confidence. Often, we’ll pronounce a word correctly all of our lives until we hear someone, maybe a broadcaster or someone we think is smarter that we are, pronounce it differently. Too often we assume that they must know something we don’t know, so we start pronouncing the word the way they say it instead of the way we were correctly taught.
Elster says that hands down the most hotly debated pronunciation in the world is over the word harass. How do you say it? You’re not wrong if you say HAR-is. That is the original and traditional pronunciation of the word. Over time however huh-RAS has become a more common way of saying the word. The author’s explanation of the debate over the word is far too complex to get into here.
I’ll end with the word that made a co-worker (a co-anchor actually) so angry that she didn’t speak to me for a few days and though it happened a good 10 years ago, I’d predict that if I brought it up to her today she’d still be steamed. The simple 5-letter word is forte. It is commonly used to describe a person’s expertise or lack of it. An example would be, “I’d like to be more of a leader, but getting up in front of people is not my forte.” If you pronounce it for-TAY, you pronounce it incorrectly. The correct pronunciation is FORT. “I’d like to be more of a leader, but getting up in front of people is not my fort." I pronounced it correctly during a newscast and was corrected (live on the air) by my co-anchor. She wasn’t trying to be mean or malicious -- in fact to the contrary, she just thought I’d be embarrassed by pronouncing it incorrectly. During the next commercial break, we had a brief and heated two minute debate about how forte should be pronounced and then she didn’t speak to me for a couple days. Forte, when pronounced FOR-tay refers a kind of musical direction usually dealing with loudness.
I warn you to be careful playing around with how words are pronounced. Be ready for a healthy debate, heated argument or maybe a co-anchor who won’t speak to you for a while.
If you want to load up on ammunition, the book is The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations by Charles Harrington Elster published by Houghton Mifflin Company. Now if I can only figure out if Hiroshima is pronounced HEER-uh-SHEE-muh or HIR-uh-SHEE-muh. And, I’m not even going to get into the correct pronunciation of the word AUNT!
See you tonight at 4:30, 5:00, 6:00 and 10:00 pm.