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The Big Book ofBeastly Mispronunciations

by Charles Harrington Elster

INTRODUCTION to the First Edition, 1999

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.

When I was growing up, one of the surest ways to raise the decibel level of the already stentorian conversation at dinnertime was to raise the subject of pronunciation, or worse, to question how another family member pronounced a certain word. What would begin as an animated discussion often would degenerate into a shouting match and end with the contestants hunched and panting over an unabridged dictionary. If a clear victor emerged, the vanquished party was often sullen for weeks.

Were we fanatics, members of some fringe element of verbally obsessed freaks? Not at all. I have heard scores of testimonials about this sort of familial sparring from people all over the country. Were we nitpickers, smitten by the bug of phonetic correctness? You bet—and proud of it. In our home, words were nothing to trifle with. Language was the great, mysterious gift that distinguished the human being from the beast, and how you used words—and pronounced them—was a mark of character, intelligence, and refinement. It was an important lesson for a young person to learn, especially for one who would grow up to make pronouncements about pronunciation.

There are those, however, who would teach a much different lesson—that simply because we are human our speech can never be beastly:

Few people nowadays botch pronunciation. Americans are perfectly sensible in not caring a hoot about it. Inarticulateness, not mispronunciation, is what sends people to defeat in the Game. It used to be thought that a distinct and careful pronunciation was most desirable, but no one believes that anymore except a few speech teachers. . . . Most people are well advised not to worry about a particular pronunciation. Say it the way you want and be proud of it. No party or parties decide the meaning of a word, and no one decides the pronunciation. . . . You needn’t worry about pronunciation, since no one cares about that anymore.
— Robert C. Pinckert, Pinckert’s Practical Grammar (1986)

It’s hard to imagine any self-respecting person swallowing this nonsense. Telling us to pronounce words however we please and claiming that no one cares about how they are pronounced is an insult to our intelligence—and an invitation to disaster. Would you trust a driving instructor who told you not to worry about the rules of the road? Pinckert is like the writing teacher who, faced with a group of students eager to sharpen their skills, says, "Don’t worry about grammar, spelling, punctuation, diction, syntax, and all that useless, boring stuff. There’s no such thing as a mistake. Whatever you feel like writing is good." Those who take that counsel to heart no doubt will learn to write good and get a more better job.

The sad truth is that lots of people mispronounce words every day and plenty of other people notice. (Just listen to all the folks around you who say pro-noun-ciation instead of pro-nun-ciation!) And because we know that other people take note of how we speak, most of us do care about pronunciation, as this passage illustrates:

If you are like most of us, you are embarrassed when you mispronounce a word. You feel that mispronouncing common, or even uncommon, words marks you as not quite educated. And you are right. . . . Of course, you can still make a million, have friends, influence people, be admired for your good sense, be loved for your good heart, send your children to the best colleges, become President of the United States even if your pronunciation is not what it should be. But you will still be judged by the words you mispronounce. And you may not be judged kindly.
— Abraham and Betty Lass, Dictionary of Pronunciation (1976)

As the author of several books about language, I have had the opportunity to be a guest on several hundred radio shows throughout the United States and in Canada, and the experience has been ear-opening, to say the least. As I fielded questions, noted gripes, and listened to the lamentations of hundreds of listeners, one thing became persistently and incontestably clear: People do care about how the English language is spoken, and they care about it with a passion—sometimes a ferocious one.

The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations is the product of my lifelong interest in the spoken word. Specifically, it is the culmination of over a dozen years of observing the pronunciation of educated Americans, studying the pronunciations recorded in dictionaries from the 18th century to the present, and weighing the opinions of pronunciation experts on hundreds of disputed words (and various troublesome names as well). My focus naturally is on the present, but my analysis always takes in the past. What emerges from these pages is a snapshot of cultivated American speech at the end of the millenium with the entire 20th century in the background.

Although this volume incorporates my two earlier books on pronunciation, There Is No Zoo in Zoology, and Other Beastly Mispronunciations (1988) and Is There a Cow in Moscow? More Beastly Mispronunciations and Sound Advice (1990), it is by no means merely a reprint or rehash of their contents. Every entry in those books has been revised and updated and every ruling rigorously reexamined. I have expanded my list of Authorities Consulted and relied on the most recent editions of the leading dictionaries. I have also added a good deal of material; at least one-fifth of the entries in this book are new.

The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations is much more than a dry list of acceptable and unacceptable pronunciations. It provides historical background. It reports the opinions of numerous authorities. It offers pithy explanations and passionate opinion. It is replete with information you won’t find in a dictionary or get from other pronunciation guides that simply present their preferences and do not bother to justify them. Only in these pages will you find a concise and accessible discussion of past and present usage, alternative pronunciations, levels of acceptability, analogies and tendencies, the vicissitudes of human nature, the terrible swift sword of phonetic justice—whatever variables may happen to bear upon a particular word.

Here you will get some straight talk on where the stress should fall in harass(ment). You will find out why so many say nucular instead of nuclear, why you should think twice about sounding the t in often, and why the pronunciation for-TAY for forte (strong point) is a pretentious blunder. You will learn why we should articulate the middle c in arctic and pronounce foliage and verbiage in three syllables rather than two. You will get some sound advice on where to place the accent in affluent, influence, mayoral, and electoral and hear "the taint of preciosity" in the hissing-s pronunciations of controversial, negotiate, and species. [The quoted phrase is from The King's English by H. W. Fowler and F. G. Fowler, 3rd ed., 1931.] Words that unnerve or trip up many well-educated speakers—deluge, heinous, milieu, flaccid, loath, niche, et cetera, clandestine, machination, philatelist, entrepreneur, unequivocally, xenophobia, assuage, and zoology are but a few examples—you will pronounce hereafter with quiet confidence. In short, you will see how to air is human, to ur divine.

Although The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations contains no shortage of my opinions, I have no particular ax to grind. I view sloppy speakers and ostentatious speakers with equal disdain. I frown upon affectation as well as carelessness. I take a few potshots at our neighbors across the pond (the British), but I am not interested in disparaging or promoting the speech of any group or region. I am sometimes accused of wanting to fix the language or erase all differences among speakers, but even the accusers know these are preposterous goals. "Sounds are too volatile and subtile for legal restraints," Dr. Johnson cautioned in the preface to his famous dictionary of 1755. "To enchain syllables, and to lash the wind, are equally the undertakings of pride, unwilling to measure its desires by its strength."

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. And I deplore our tendency to model our speech after those "whose abilities and character entitle [their] opinions to respect," as Noah Webster wrote, "but whose pronunciation may be altogether accidental or capricious." Change is inevitable, and only time can tell what will perish and what will prevail. In the meantime, however, pronunciations born of laziness and parrotry will feel the lash of my pen.

Over two hundred years ago, in 1791, the English elocutionist John Walker published A Critical Pronouncing Dictionary and Expositor of the English Language, a work of such extraordinary popularity that its influence could still be discerned in the 20th century. In many ways The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations is indebted to Walker, for he laid many of the ground rules for prescriptive commentary on pronunciation and set the tone for generations of authorities to come. "I do not pretend to be exempt from faults myself," he wrote in his preface;

in a work like the present, it would be a miracle to escape them; nor have I the least idea of deciding as a judge, in a case of so much delicacy and importance, as the pronunciation of a whole people; I have only assumed the part of an advocate to plead the cause of consistency and analogy, and where custom is either silent or dubious, to tempt the lovers of their language to incline to the side of propriety; so that my design is principally to give a kind of history of pronunciation, and a register of its present state; and where the authorities of dictionaries or speakers are found to differ, to give such a display of the analogies of the language as may enable every inspector to decide for himself.

I have written this book for the same reasons Walker wrote his: to register the pronunciations of my time and give "a kind of history" of them; to plead for consistency and analogy; to tempt you to "incline to the side of propriety"; and, when authorities and speakers differ, to provide sufficient information to enable you to decide for yourself. Consider The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations an invitation to determine where and how you draw the line. What constitutes acceptability or beastliness for you? Whether you are adamant or ambivalent about the spoken word, you will find a bold line here to guide you in drawing your own conclusions.

The late John Ciardi—poet, teacher, etymologist, and lover of the language—once asked,

Are there any enduring standards of English usage? I think there are only preferences, "passionate preferences," as Robert Frost used to say, the level at which any English-speaking person chooses to engage the instrument—the orchestra—of the language. In the long run the usage of those who do not think about the language will prevail. Usages I resist will become acceptable. . . .

It will not do to resist uncompromisingly. Yet those who care have a duty to resist. Changes that occur against such resistance are tested changes. The language is better for them—and for the resistance.

Pronunciation, like life, is governed by repetition but rife with ambiguity, passion, and caprice; it is forever vulnerable to change and open to interpretation. This book is one man’s informed opinion, based on a variety of reputable sources, about the pronunciation of a number of problematic words. I present it to you in the hope that it will assist, amuse, enlighten, and occasionally inflame you, and give you as much joy and distress in the reading as it did me in the writing.

Use The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations to settle arguments, start a colorful debate, or reevaluate your preferences. But more than anything, use it to "engage the instrument of the language" and have fun playing it.

     In words, as fashions, the same rule will hold,
     Alike fantastic, if too new or old;
     Be not the first by whom the new are tried,
     Nor yet the last to lay the old aside.
        —Alexander Pope

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Copyright © 1999 by Charles Harrington Elster.
All rights reserved.
Reproduction without permission is prohibited.

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INTRODUCTION to the Second Edition, 2006

In the years that have passed since the first edition of this guide appeared, I have had the benefit — or the distinct displeasure, depending on how you look at it — of hearing a heck of a lot more words mispronounced. I have also heard from readers upset about some earsore* or eager to have me opine about something. And, like an orthoepic Santa Claus — who knows whether you’ve “talked bad or good” — I’ve been making my list and checking it twice.

Herein you will find discussions of almost two hundred more words and names whose pronunciation is mangled or muddled, disputed or in doubt. You will learn about some relatively new inductees into English like bruschetta, gigabyte, and pedophile; you will lay to rest your anxiety over daunting French loanwords and phrases like sobriquet, coup de grâce, and pièce de résistance; and you will get authoritative advice on proper names like Pinochet, Niger, Muslim, Qatar, and Al Qaeda that have been in and on the air in recent years.

You will emerge from these augmented pages knowing how and how not to pronounce the twenty-third letter of the English alphabet (W) and why you should be wary of how the dictionaries of Merriam-Webster treat pronunciation. (Start at archipelago and follow the cross-references.) You will emerge confidently pronouncing tricky words like devotee, dieresis, gewgaw, seneschal, and tinnitus. You will emerge having learned the right way, once and for all, to pronounce fiancé(e), hara-kiri, Halloween, machismo, magnate, Pulitzer, and sheik. I suspect that you will also emerge surprised by my rulings on how best to pronounce curriculum vitae, saith, and sorbet.

As usual, you will get a healthy dose of my opinion — which I give liberally and passionately but which you are free to take in moderation or eschew. Though I exercise my right to pontificate, I don’t presume to dictate. As always, I encourage you to use my informed opinion to formulate your own.

Finally, all the entries in the first edition have been revised and updated so that they report how the current dictionaries weigh in. If anything has changed (especially my opinion), I promise that you will hear about it here.


* Earsore: an annoyance to the ear — a rare but useful companion to eyesore.

# # #

Copyright © 2006 by Charles Harrington Elster.
All Rights Reserved.
Reproduction without permission is prohibited.