A current political figure was recently roasted alive while appearing in Reno, Nevada, instructing a crowd of Nevadans that they incorrectly mispronounced the name of their state. “Nuh- Vaahh – Dah”, he intoned, while an increasingly roiled crowd rejoined with active contempt, “Ne – Vah – Da”.
As a clueless singer once warbled, not understanding the fun of Cole Porter’s Lyrics, “You say potato, I say potato. You say tomato, I say tomato. Potato, potato, tomato, tomato. Let’s call the whole thing off.”
Pronunciation can get tricky and occasionally regional, as in the case of Nevada, Colorado, and Moscow, the location of the University of Idaho.. There is no “cow” in Moscow.
Just a bit farther northwest of Moscow, the largest city between Seattle and Minneapolis, Spokane, Washington is pronounced “Spo- Can” not “Spo- Cane”. California offers the elegant San Diego oceanfront community, La Jolla, which is not “La Joll – A”, but “Lah- Hoya”, and the town used as the setting for Lost Horizans and countless western films, Ojai, is “Oh- Hi”, not “O-Jie”.
British place-names are notoriously idiosyncratic, defying all laws of reason and reasonablity. The three that pop up fairly frequently are Magdalen (one of Oxford’s colleges), Marylebone (Sherlock Holmes’ neighborhood in London), and Cholmondeley (castle and garden in Cheshire). So, Magdalen = Mawd-lin, Marylebone = Mar-Lee-bone, and Cholmondeley = Chumly.
As you had no doubt guessed.
That out of the way, let’s get to the meat and potatoes of this piece, no matter how you pronounce (or spell) potatoes. I’m a self-confessed Snoot, particular about words, but it’s tough to know exactly how to pronounce words until the words are heard spoken aloud. For example, we’ve swiped words from the French without permission or an instructional manual, so who really know what an American is supposed to do with “foyer”, “oeuvre”, or “haute couture”. All sorts of words come leaping into common use from medicine, law, technology, and government as well, adding le mot juste (see?) but leaving us again vulnerable to Snoot shaming.
For many of us, it happens in our first semester at the Wow-You-Are-A-Smart-Coookie college of our choice. We’ve done the reading; we’ve read the critical articles about the reading. We have points aching to be spouted, the sorts of points that immediately establish a student as a force to be reckoned with and a potential academic luminary. We speak with cheerful force, looking about to see which heads nod in stunned admission of out brilliance, until, from across the aisle or across the seminar table we see a languid wave of forbearance. “I’m sure,” the quietly assured world traveller instructs us, “you mean to say …”, and we burn in silent shame, determined never to share an opinion in public again.
I read widely and a lot. I read British mysteries, contemporary political journals, classic works of world literature, and countless biographies. I knew words, but at second-hand. Nobody I knew actually used words such as “hegemony”, “consummate” (the adjective, not the verb) , or “insouciant”. Oddly, it never occurred to me that the words as I heard them in my head might not be correct.
Contextual reading had provided meaning, in most instances. I could tell that consummate horsemanship meant really good at riding horses, and I sounded it out (in the brain) as “con-soo- mutt” whereas the cognoscenti used the pronunciation, “Kuh-n-suh-mitt”; down for the count with that one in Comp Lit 101.
Every slick historian I encountered in preparing for the freshman seminar in Comp Civ used the word “hegemony” to mean dominant power. Happily I weighed in touting a nation’s “Hedge-a-mony”. Hah! “Do you mean “Hi-jem-uh-nee”? Just shoot me.
I’m not even going to try to remember how I mangled “insouciant”. Let’s just agree that my first year was essentially mangled beyond repair sometime before the second week of classes.
OK, there was one more humiliation waiting for this pretentious college freshman. I had received a letter from my step-mother, asking how I had become so “hirsute”, which, of course, I took to mean spectacularly intelligent. Made sense at the time.
I could have looked it up, but come on! Why belabor the immediately obvious? Had I one shred of humility or impulse toward self-preservation, I would have found out that hirsute means “hairy” or “shaggy” and was my stepmother’s way of suggesting I needed a haircut.
Rebounding as only the young poseur could, I returned for the second semester with renewed chutzpah (don’t sound that out – separate post on Yiddish usage coming soon) and tossed the word pointedly into a heated discussion on absurdist drama. “I don’t think Pirandello,” I bleated, “is as hirsute as the rest of you seem to feel.”
I survived the class because the prof thought I was being absurdist rather than knuckleheaded. Points for me!
I confess that despite my comeuppances I am subject to involuntary Snootic response to some routinely mispronounced words, and, in the hope of saving the reader from the sort of pain I have brought upon myself – here they are:
Arc-tic not Ar-tic
Nuc-lee-ur not Nuc-yoo-lar
Ess-presso not Ex-presso
Lam- baste not Lam-bast
Cav-al-ree not Cal-va-ree (unless describing Biblical location)
Champ-at-the-bit not Chomp-at-the-bit
Or-i -ent not Or-i-ent-tate – so dis-or-i-ented not dis-or-i-en-tated
And in a final burst of unsolicited Snootery –
To be objective is to be disinterested … to not give a rip is to be uninterested. A referee should be disinterested but not uninterested.
A cache is a hiding place … cachet is superior status. Gnomes may have some cachet as they maintain a cache of gold and jewels
Tenet is a belief held as true – a tenant rents an apartment. ‘Never lose your deposit’, the tenet of most tenants.
Prostrate means face down – prostate is a gland near the bladder in males. An exploding prostate caused the banker to fall prostrate on the gravel.
Tact describes a fine sense of what is appropriate – a tack is a sharp pin. The diplomat showed little tact in using a tack to display offensive pictures of the dictator’s cat.
Libel describes defamation – liable can mean legally responsible or susceptible. A journalist is liable when the victim of an untrue allegation alleges libel in the article.
A reader pores over material – an eater pouts milk on cereal – Poor Patti pores over her pores while pouring pears.
Averse means opposed to – adverse means unfavorable. I am averse to adverse circumstances.
Something discrete is distinct – something discreet avoids attention. Lazlo was discreet in identifying only six discrete instances of unlawful assault.
As a friend used to say, these are fun-facts to know and trade. Pass them on, or file them away.
Forewarned is forearmed, but remember that to be forearmed is also to be smacked by a hulking attacker’s lower arm.
Maybe you don’t need to pass that along.