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What Speech Do We Like Best?

Beastly Mispronunciations

The Big Book Of Beastly Mispronunciations: The Complete Opinionated Guide For The Careful Speaker by Charles Harrington Elster offers suggestions on how to pronounce thousands of words and expressions.  Here are 100 examples!

 

 

Abdomen AB-duh-men. Occasionally, ab-DOH-men.

Veteran radio commentator Paul Harvey says ab-DOH-men, with the accent on the middle syllable, and some speakers still insist that this is the proper pronunciation. Not so. Both ab-DOH-men and AB-duh-men have been used in cultivated speech fore more than a hundred years, and both are acceptable. However, since the 1960s AB-duh-men has become so prevalent that it has nearly eclipsed ab-DOH-men.

The Imperial Dictionary (1884), Funk & Wagnalls Standard (1897), the Century (1889-1914), and Webster 2 (1934) all countenanced AB-duh-men as an alternative pronunciation. Vizetelly (1929) noted that it was “gradually displacing the more formal” ab-DOH-men. Alfred H. Holt, in You Don’t Say! (1937), remarks that “there is something too forthright and booming about ‘ab-dó-men,’ though it has long been standard. Five of the leading dictionaries now allow the first syllable accent, and one approves it.” When Kenyon and Knott (1949) and American College (1952) gave AB-duh-men preference, it was clear old ab-DOH-men was taking it in the gut.

Today AB-duh-men is the norm, and though current dictionaries still list second-syllable stress in good standing, even Paul Harvey would probably tell you that it’s only a matter of time before ab-DOH-men goes belly up.

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Accessory ak-SES-uh-ree. Do not say uh-SES-uh-ree.

Despite what you may hear from the salesperson at your local department store, there is no such thing as an assessory. Pronounce the double c in accessory like ks. See the two previous entries, and also flaccid and succinct.

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Alumnae uh-LUHM-nee. Do not say uh-LUHM-ny.

Alumnae is the Latin feminine plural of alumna (uh-LUHM-nuh), a female graduate. The word is often mispronounced uh-LUHM-ny (-ny as in night), which is the proper pronunciation for alumni, the Latin masculine plural of alumnus (uh-LUHM-nus), a male graduate. Alumni can mean male graduates, or male and female graduates.  Alumnae (uh-LUHM-nee) refers only to female graduates, as the alumnae of Smith and Wellesley. See algae, antennae, larvae, minutia, papilla(e), vertebrae.

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American(s) uh-MER-i-kin(z), or uh-MAIR-i-kin(z).

Do not pronounce American(s) in three syllables, uh-MAIR-kin(z), or, as Lyndon Johnson did, uh-MUR-kin(z). Make sure to say it in four syllables: A-mer-i-can(s).

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Bacchus BAK-us, not BAHK-us.

The name of this Greek god of wine and drunken revelry is properly pronounced with the short a of back, not, as one increasingly hears, with the broad a of  father.

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Balsamic bawl-SAM-ik. Don’t say bawl-SAHM-ik.

Despite what you may hear from some slippery-tongued chefs on those gourmet cooking TV shows, the stressed second syllable of balsamic rhymes with ham, not calm.

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Bonaparte  BOH-nuh-pahrt, not BAHN-uh-pahrt.

The o is long, as in bone, not short, as in bonnet.

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Buffet (sideboard or self-service meal) buh-FAY, buu-FAY, or boo-FAY.

According to Burchfield (1996), the British pronunciation is BUHF-it (rhymes with rough it) for the sideboard and BUU-fay or BUHF-ay for the self-service meal .

In American speech, the u in buffet may have the sound of the u in but, or oo in book, or oo in boot.  Regardless of which sound you prefer for the u (and many educated speakers will vary from one to another, which is no crime), the accent should be on the second syllable.  Random House II  (1987) notes that first-syllable stress is common when the word is used as an adjective, as in buffet dinner, buffet service, and buffet car. This distinction, which is relatively recent, seems a natural and inoffensive extension of the process of shifting stress (e.g., the unknown man and a man unknown to us).  For the noun, however, second-syllable stress is the norm and first-syllable stress should be resisted.  See address for more on shifting stress.

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Chamois SHAM-ee.

Unless you are referring to the goat antelope Rupicapra rupicapra, any pronunciation other than SHAM-ee is beastly.

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Chauvinism SHOH-vi-niz’m (SHOH-like show, rhyming with slow).

It is beastly to pronounce the first syllable SHAW- (rhymes with jaw), and even beastlier to pronounce it SHOW- (rhymes with cow).

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Congratulations kun-GRACH-uh-LAY-shinz, not kun-GRAJ-uh-LAY-shinz.

The issue here is the sound of the t in the second syllable. Whenever I’m a guest language maven fielding questions on a radio show, invariably someone calls in to complain about speakers who pronounce this word as if it were spelled congradulations and had something to do with graduation.  This informal and rather sloppy  pronunciation has become so frequent among educated speakers that some current dictionaries now recognize it. Cultivated speakers, however, take care to pronounce the t like ch in congratulate, congratulatory, and congratulations.

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Conservatism  kun-SUR-vuh-tiz’m. Do not say kun-SUR-vuh-tiv-iz’m.

There is no conservative in conservatism.  The word has five syllables, not six.  The spelling conservativism, modeled after the mispronunciation, is also nonstandard.

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Costume Kahs-tyoom (recommended) or Kahs-toom.

“If you are one of those who can say [KAHS-tyoom] without making it [KAHS-choom], and without sounding affected, you have the privilege,” says Holt (1937). “The rest of us will probably say ‘cos-toom.’” Good advice, I say.  If KAHS-tyoom, with the long u, comes naturally to you, fine; if not, say -toom. No one can legitimately find fault with you for using either pronunciation.

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Debut (verb) day-BYOO; (noun) day-BYOO or DAY-byoo.

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Demeter di-MEE-tur.

All pronunciation mavens have an Achilles heel (or two), and I must confess that until recently the weak spot of mythological magnitude in my spoken vocabulary was Demeter.  I had always pronounced the name of this Greek goddess of agriculture and fertility with the accent on the first syllable, DEM-i-tur.  Then, a few weeks ago, when the actress Demi Moore was getting a lot of attention for a film or something, I was puzzled when broadcasters would stress the second syllable of her first name, saying di-MEE Moore instead of DEM-ee Moore, which seemed more logical to me.  Wondering if Demi was perhaps short for Demeter, this hapless maven went to a dictionary, and then another dictionary, and then another, and so on, until Zeus finally took pity on me and turned me into a parking meter in midtown Manhattan, where for the rest of time I could listen to New Yorkers saying, “Hey, did ya feed Demeter?”

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Diagnosis DY-ig-NOH-sis (also -sis).

The plural diagnoses is pronounced DY-ig-NOH-seez (-seez like seize).

Take care not to confuse the singular and plural pronunciations.  Many speakers incorrectly say diagno-seez when they mean diagno-sis. See basis, crisis, thesis.

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Disastrous di-ZAS-trus.

Disastrous, like disaster, has three syllables. Do not add an extra syllable and say di ZAS-tur-us, as though  the word were spelled disasterous.  This is a di-ZAS-trus-lee careless pronunciation . See ambidextrous.

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Doppelgänger DAHP-ul-GANG-ur (rhymes with topple hanger).

Some authorities still prefer the German pronunciation, but I say this word is pompous enough without subjecting it to a throat-and-noseful of that.  English has employed doppelgänger for almost 150 years, and there’s no excuse not to anglicize it . Current orthography favors lowercase d but retains the umlaut of dieresis (dy-ER-i-sis ) over ä.

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Drowned DROWND.

Drowned has one syllable. The pronunciation DROWN-ded is beastly.

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Ecstatic ek-STAT-ik.

Some sloppy speakers drop the first c and say i-STAT-ik.  This is beastly.

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Error  ER-ur or AIR-ur. Do not say AIR.

Sportcasters, particularly those who cover baseball, are notoriously careless pronouncers of this word.  Many say it in one syllable instead of two, compressing error into air.  Affected speakers, on the other hand, overpronounce the terminal -or by giving it a full OR sound, like oar.  Both of these pronunciations are, in dictionary lingo, “nonstandard,” which in this book means beastly.  A third variant, ER-uh, with the final r silent, is not listed in dictionaries but is acceptable from speakers who normally drop their r’s ( e.g., some New Englanders, New Yorkers, and Southerners) and pronounce, for example, carrier as KAR-ee-uh and father as FAH-thuh.  The pronunciation ER-ur, with  e as in pet, is chiefly Eastern and Southern; the pronunciation AIR-ur (AIR- as in pair), chiefly Midwestern and Western.  Use the one you are comfortable with. Just remember to pronounce the word in two syllables. See furor, mirror, and, for more on the overpronunciation of -or, juror.

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Experiment ek-SPER-uh-mint or ek-SPAIR-uh-mint.  The first syllable is often, and acceptably, lightened to ik-.

Do not say ek-SPEER-uh-mint.  Properly, there is no spear in experiment.

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Fifth FIFTH or FITH.

If you can pronounce the second f, good for you.  But there’s nothing slovenly or improper about dropping it and rhyming fifth with pith and myth.  It is beastly, however, to drop the h and say FIFT or drop the th and say FIF.

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Flutist FLOO-tist

The word flutist was first recorded in 1603, and FLOO-tist has been and still is the only acceptable pronunciation for it. The variant flautist was adapted from the Italian flautista in 1860. The preferred pronunciation for flautist is FLAW-tist (FLAW- like flaw) The variant FLOW-tist (FLOW- rhyming with cow), which mimics the Italian pronunciation of -au, appears in current dictionaries  but only the NBC Handbook (1984) prefers it. Unless you have some special reason for preferring Italian spellings and pronunciations, stick with the English flutist (FLOO-tist), which is both traditional and unaffected. See pianist, viola.

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Forward FOR-wurd (like four + word).

What has happened to the for in forward ? In recent years I have heard more and more speakers, on the street and on the air, changing it to foh- (rhymes with toe) so that forward comes out more like  foe word or faux word.  This is not a simple matter of r-dropping, because these same speakers retain the second r, in -ward, and most of them are not native r-droppers who pahk the cah and eat with a fawk and say fah-wood (or faw-wood) mahch. Native r-droppers pronounce  -or- roughly as -aw- or -ah-, but these folks are pronouncing it  -oh-, with a long o as in go. I have to conclude that it is simply an eccentricity, and instance of what might be called r-slopping.  C’mon, everybody, there is no foe in forward. You either pronounce both r’s, or, of you’re an r-dropping Southerner or New Englander or New Yorker, swallow them both.

Also, don’t confuse forward with froward, which means stubborn, willful, refractory, and is pronounced FROH-wurd.  See foreward.

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Genre ZAHN-ruh, not JAHN-ruh

This loanword from French (ultimately from the Latin genus, kind, sort, class) retains much of its French flavor in pronunciation. Thus the g is pronounced as in rouge, massage, and mirage. (Linguists call this a voiced sibilant).

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Grocery GROH-suh-ree or GROHS-ree

The word is acceptably pronounced either in three or two syllables. Avoid, please, with all your might, the ugsome GROH-shuh-ree and GROHSH-ree. Only one dictionary, M-W 10 (1993), recognizes the slovenly GROSH-ree, which is straight out of our Lower Slobbovia.

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Gymnast JIM-nast, not JIM-nist.

Gymnast is properly pronounced to rhyme with swim fast, not slim fist.

Webster 3 (1961) was the first to record the slurred JIM-nist for this word, which entered English in 1594. Of the four major current American dictionaries, three give priority to the traditional JIM-nast, and WNW 3 (1997) sanctions only JIM-nast. JIM-nast is also the only pronunciation in Funk & Wagnalls Standard (1980) and OED 2 (1989), and it is the preference of the NBC Handbook (1984), Frierson (1988), and Jones (1991). Only Oxford American (1980) prefers JIM-nist.

You should clearly pronounce the -ast in bombast and bombastic, iconoclast and iconoclastic, encomiast and encomiastic, dynast and dynastic, sarcast (a sarcastic person) and sarcastic, epiblast and epiblastic, fantast (a dreamer, visionary) and fantastic, enthusiast and enthusiastic, gymnast and gymnastic. See enthusiast.

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Heinous HAY-nis.

This word is so frequently mispronounced by well-educated speakers (who ought to know better) that you’d think the dictionaries would have caved in by now and countenanced the blunder. To their credit, they have not.  HAY-nis is the only acceptable pronunciation of this word.  Do not say HEE-nis or HEE-nee-is (HEE- as in heat), both of which are HAY-nis and long-standing members of the Most Unwanted Beastly Mispronunciations Hit List. Heinous has two syllables, not three, and the first syllable is pronounced like the word hay, never like he. See mischievous, grievous, intravenous.

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Huge HYOOJ. Pronounce the h.

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Human HYOO-min. Pronounce the h.

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Hundred HUHN-drid.

Don’t transpose the r and e in hundred and say hunderd. Also avoid the even more beastly HUH-nurd, where the r and e are switched and there is no medial d sound at all. These pronunciations are slovenly and uneducated.

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Interesting IN-tris-ting or IN-tur-uh-sting or IN-tur-ES-ting.

All three pronunciations are acceptable, though not so long ago only the second was considered cultivated while the first was considered British and the third was frowned upon by some authorities. One reason there are so many accepted pronunciations is that most educated speakers do not say interesting in exactly the same way every time. Slight, unconscious variation is natural in rapid and informal speech, and when a certain variation recurs often enough in educated speech, it usually becomes the norm.

The three-syllable IN-tris-ting is a victim of syncope (SING-kuh-pee), the loss or omission of a sound or syllable from the middle of a word as in FAM-lee for family and KUHMF-tur-buul for comfortable (which see). It is now probably the most commonly heard pronunciation in American speech. The noun and verb interest is also a victim of syncope and is usually pronounced in two syllables, IN-trist, although the older IN-tur-ist is still heard. The verbal adjective interested is often pronounced in four syllables, IN-tur-ES-tid, but the evidence of my ears says the three-syllable IN-tris-tid is more common.          

The four-syllable variant IN-tur-uh-sting, once the preferred pronunciation, is now much less common than the syncopated IN-tris-ting. The somewhat overpronounced IN-tur-ES-ting never had great currency. Speakers who normally say IN-tris-ting will sometimes use it for emphasis or ironically, drawing out the syllables, as in the stock phrase very interesting.

Avoid pronouncing interesting as if it were spelled inneresting. The t of inter- must be preserved at all costs! Also don’t say IN-tur-sting, as if the word were spelled intersting. These are both beastly mispronunciations. For more on syncope, see chocolate, temperature.

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Iraq i-RAHK or i-RAK; Iraqi i-RAHK-ee or i-RAK-ee.

There is no eye in Iraq. Pronounce the I- as in irritate and the -raq like rock or rack. 

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Irony EYE-ruh-nee (like the name Ira + knee). Don’t say EYE-ur-nee.

The r in irony is properly pronounced like the r in ironic, not like the r in iron.

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Jaguar JAG-wahr.

WNW Guide (1984), which gives JAG-wahr, adds that “JAG-yoo-ahr is occasionally heard.” Not in standard American speech it isn’t—nor, for that matter, in standard British speech, where the pronunciation is JAG-yoo-ur (swallow the r). I have heard JAG-yoo-ahr in commercials for the British luxury car of that name, where it struck me as yet another example of the vocal affectation common in ads for upscale products. Apparently Madison Avenue thinks the average American consumer associates affluence and prestige with fake British accents or an affected Continental intonation. American speakers should heed the advice of Opdycke (1939): “The u is pronounced w. Don’t say jag’ you are, but jag’ wahr. There are two syllables, not three.” And for goodness’ sake don’t say JAG-wyr  (-wyr like wire), which my wife reported hearing from a wildlife conservationist interviewed on NPR recently. That’s a truly beastly mispronunciation.

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Jargon  JAHR-gun (rhymes with bargain).

This is the only pronunciation given in American Heritage 3 (1992) and WNW 3 (1997) and the preference of Lass & Lass (1976), WNW Guide (1984), the NBC Handbook (1984), and Jones (1991). JAHR-gahn, preferred until the 1940s, is now an overpronunciation.

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Jewel(s) JOO-wuul(z). Don’t say JOOL(Z).

There is no Jules in jewels. Jewel(s) is a two-syllable word. See jewelry.

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Karaoke: KAR-ee-OH-kee.

Only two current American dictionaries list this word, which the supplement to OED 2 (1989) shows was first recorded in English in 1979. M-W 10 (1993) gives three variants: KAR-ee-OH-kee, a reasonable anglicization and the most commonly heard pronunciation; kuh-ROH-kee, a clumsy loutish pronunciation and an abomination in both English and Japanese; and KAH-rah-OH-kay, an approximation of the Japanese. RHWC (1997) gives one pronunciation: KAR-ee-OH-kee. Go with the one.

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Ketchup KECH-up.

“The word, however spelled,” writes Evans (1959), is “an attempt to present in English the Malayan word kechap (sauce), which, in turn, seems to have been an attempt to present a Chinese phrase in Malayan.” The Chinese is ke-tsiap or ketsiap, which Shaw (1972) translates  as “pickled-fish brine” and Random House II (1987) says is akin to Chinese words for eggplant and juice. Ketchup is without question the dominant spelling today. Current dictionaries list catsup and catchup as alternative spellings but fail to note that while the former is still fairly common the latter is rarely used by anyone over the age of ten.

Regardless of how you prefer to spell the word, or what the label on your favorite brand says, the pronunciation most commonly heard is KECH-up. The alternative KACH-up, based on the spelling catchup, is less common but acceptable. The variant KAT-sup, based on the spelling catsup, is sometimes heard, and dictionaries politely list it in good standing. To my ear, though, KAT-sup has a look-at-me quality that makes me wonder if the speaker expects to be congratulated for demonstrating a preference for the alternative spelling

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Laboratory LAB-ruh-TOR-ee or LAB-uh-ruh-TOR-ee.

The British stress the second syllable, luh-BOR-uh-tree.

Don’t say LAB-ur-TOR-ee (like labbertory) or LAB-uh-TOR-ee (like labbatory). These are beastly mispronunciations.

Some older speakers may insist that only the five-syllable LAB-uh-ruh-TOR-ee is correct, and that the four syllable LAB-ruh-TOR-ee—the result of syncope (SING-kuh-pee), the loss or omission of sounds or letters from the middle of a word—is careless. This is a misconception. The four-syllable pronunciation is listed first in Kenyon & Knott (1949), American College (1952), and Random House II (1987), and is preferred by Lass & Lass (1976), the NBC Handbook (1984), and WNW Guide (1984). For more on syncope, see chocolate, temperature, vegetable.

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Library LY-brer-ee.

Don’t say LY-ber-ee, as if the word were spelled liberry. There is no berry in library.

The mispronunciation LY-ber-ee, according to M-W 9 (1985) and 10 (1993), is heard “from educated speakers, including college presidents and professors, as well as with somewhat greater frequency from less educated speakers.” That is the kind of insidious factoid that makes one view what little usage advice today’s dictionaries dispense with a skeptical and cynical eye. If a few college presidents and professors say LY-ber-ee, does that somehow make it less beastly? Are those anomalous academics paragons of elocution? Should we now emulate them and their bedfellows in beastliness, the “less educated speakers”?

I have been involved in public library advocacy in San Diego since 1988 and have served on that city’s Board of Library Commissioners since 1993. Consequently, I have spent countless hours discussing library issues, campaigning for libraries, attending city council meetings, appearing on radio talk shows, and listening to the testimony of hundreds of people from all walks of life, and in all that time, and all that talk I could count on my ten fingers the number of people—educated and not- so-well-educated—I have heard who said LY-ber-ee. The fact is, most children in literate homes are admonished at an early age not to say LY-ber-ee, in the same way they are admonished not to say puhsketty for spaghetti, cinnamon for synonym, or pacific for specific. Let’s be honest here: in anyone older than twelve, LY-ber-ee is certain evidence of sloppy speech habits and inadequate education.

I don’t doubt that Merriam-Webster’s files, as they assert, contain LY-ber-ee citations from educated speakers. But when an educated person says LY-ber-ee the plain truth is that he or she loses credibility in others’ eyes (or ears as it were). Some well-educated people do speak poorly, but they are generally exceptions, and most of their mistakes involve difficult rather than common words. If your college professor, or your child’s professor, said LY-ber-ee—or perfesor, for that matter—wouldn’t you raise a concerned eyebrow? The note in Random House II (1987) and RHWC (1997) seems closer to the truth: “[LY-ber-ee] is more likely to be heard from less educated or very young speakers and is often criticized.”

The variant LY-bruh-ree, though chiefly British, is also standard in American speech. Properly, library, should have three syllables, but a two syllable variant, LY-bree, occurs in educated and is listed in good standing in some current dictionaries. See arctic, February, nuclear.

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Liqueur  li-KUR.

This is the traditional American pronunciation, the preference of modern authorities, and the first pronunciation listed in all four major current American dictionaries. The variant li-KYUR (-KYUR rhyming with sir) is originally (and still) British, and the variant li-KYOOR (-KYOOR rhyming with poor), now often heard, is an affected overpronunciation that dictionaries do not recognize. See amateur, connoisseur, de rigueur, entrepreneur, restaurateur, voyeur.

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Machination MAK-i-NAY-shin. Do not say MASH-i-NAY-shin.

Properly, there is no mash in machination. The ch should be pronounced like k, as in Machiavelli, not as in machine.

This word entered English in the 15th century. From the time that dictionaries began indicating pronunciation in the 18th century  until the 20th century, authorities countenanced only one pronunciation: MAK-i-NAY-shin.  The MASH- variant arose sometimes in the mid-20th century, based on false analogy with machine, a word that Walker (1791) notes is exceptional for preserving the French –sheen for –chine. Webster 3 (1961) was the first to recognize MASH-i-NAY-shin, but the variant appeared preceded by that dictionary’s infamous Obelus of Opprobrium, an esoteric mark [÷] used to indicate a controversial pronunciation, one that occurs in educated speech but that many find unacceptable. (The reader of this book, who presumably wishes to speak well and avoid pronunciations that other good speakers find objectionable, may safely assume that any pronunciation in a Meriam-Webster dictionary that is labeled with an obelus [÷] is best avoided.) The lure of the false analogy with machine was irresistible for many, however, and the MASH-variant has since proliferated. It now appears after the traditional pronunciation in three of the four major current American dictionaries. However, WNW 3 (1997) sanctions only MAK-i-NAY-shin, which is preferred by Lass & Lass (1976), WNW Guide (1984), the NBC Handbook (1984), Everyday Reader’s (1985), and Burchfield (1996). Careful speakers should make an extra effort to hold the line on this word.

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Mayonnaise MAY-uh-NAYZ or MAY-uh-NAYZ. Don’t say MAY-nayz.

You may stress mayonnaise either on the first or last syllable, but take care to give the word three syllables. Don’t drop the middle syllable and say MAY-nayz (or MAN-ayz, as my wife is wont to do, which of course drives me to distraction). Dictionaries do not recognize this two-syllable variant.

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Medieval MEE-dee-EE-vul or MED-ee-EE-vul.

Medieval should be pronounced in four syllables. Some current dictionaries list the three-syllable variants mee-DEE-vul, med-EE-vul, and mid-EE-vul, which do not articulate the i in the second syllable. These relatively recent and unfortunately rather common corruptions are best avoided—especially mid-EE-vul, which manages also to mispronounce the first syllable. You may begin the word either with MEE- or MED-. The former, which is my preference, is the traditional American pronunciation; the latter is originally British.

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Mental MENT’l.

In mental and dental, be sure to pronounce the t clearly. Do not say mennal and dennal. Also take care to pronounce the t in words incorporating mental (fundamental, instrumental, sentimental, incremental, temperamental) and dental (accidental, incidental, occidental). See gentle, kindergarten, rental, ventilate.

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Merchandise (noun and verb) MUR-chin-DYZ, not MUR-chin-DYS.

Note the z sound in the last syllable, -dise, which should rhyme with size. Don’t pronounce it like the word dice. The suffix –ise, which takes its spelling from French, is equivalent to the suffix –ize, which comes from Greek. In advertise, compromise, enterprise, improvise, exercise, supervise, and merchandise, -ise is properly pronounced as –ize.

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Mirror  MIR-ur or MEER-ur.

Mirror has two syllables. Avoid the pronunciation of the slovenly speaker who says MEER, like the word mere, and the illiterate speaker who says MUR. See error.

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Nausea  NAW-zee-uh or NAW-shuh; nauseate NAW-zee-AYT; nauseous NAW-shus.

The nightmarish thought of attempting to navigate a safe course through all the variant pronunciations for these words that have been heard in educated speech and recorded in 20th-century dictionaries is enough to make a pronunciation maven sick to his stomach. (Current sources list from three to five variants for each word.) Suffice it to say that the pronunciations recommended above are in widespread cultivated use, listed in current dictionaries, and preferred by various authorities. For nauseous, evidence indicates that NAW-shus now prevails in American speech; for the others it’s a toss-up. That’s as far as I can guide you through this swamp of sound. You’re on your own now. Hope you feel better soon.

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Newspaper  N(Y)OOZ-pay-pur.

There is no noose in newspaper. Do not say NOOS-pay-pur. The s should have the sound of z. See dew, new.

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Niche  NICH.

“French no longer,” says Holt (1937). “Rhyme it with ditch.”

OED 2 (1989) traces niche back to 1611. Since at least the mid-18th century the anglicized NICH has been preferred in cultivated speech. Walker (1791) preferred NICH, and it is the only pronunciation countenanced by Worcester (1860), Funk & Wagnalls Standard (1897), the Century (1914), OED 1 (1928), Webster 2 (1934),  American College (1952), and RHWC (1997). Orthoepists who prefer NICH include Ayres (1894), Phyfe (1926), Vizetelly (1929), Opdycke (1939), Kenyon and Knott (1949), Lass & Lass (1976), WNW Guide (1984), and the NBC Handbook (1984). Need I say more?

Yes. This word’s long history has yielded two alternative pronunciations, NEESH and NISH. The latter is eccentric, the former is pseudo-French, and both are best avoided. NISH, which arose sometime in the 19th century, was stigmatized by Ayres and Opdycke and ignored by other authorities. Webster 3 (1961) lists it, labeling it infrequent, but it does not appear in any  current dictionaries. WNW 3 (1997) calls NEESH British (OED 2 does list it after NICH), but I have heard many un-British speakers use it—for example, Ed Koch, the former New York City mayor turned TV judge.* American Heritage 3 (1992) sanctions  NEESH as an alternative, but careful speakers would be wise to heed M-W 10 (1993), which gives priority to NICH and labels NEESH with an obelus [÷], indicating that it “is considered by some to be objectionable.” I would argue that those “some” are in fact many, and those many are cultivated speakers who defend their traditional NICH.

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Not at all NAHT-at-AWL, as spelled.

The would-be sophisticates who say NAH-tuh-TAWL give me heartburn: not a tall what? In an American speaker, nah tuh tall for not at all is a preposterous pretense that only the most egregious Anglophile would affect. This absurd pronunciation is excusable in old Hollywood movies, in which fake upper-crust accents were de rigueur (q.v.), but not in real life.

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Nuclear N(Y)OO-klee-ur. For Pete’s sake, don’t say NOO-kyuh-lur.

In his introduction to the fourth edition of the NBC Handbook of Pronunciation (1984), veteran broadcaster and language commentator Edwin Newman remarks that when the nuclear age began in August 1945, so did the nucular age.

Ever since nuclear entered the national vocabulary (a hundred years after entering in the 1840s) it has been mispronounced by millions of educated and otherwise careful speakers, including scientists, lawyers, professors, and presidents of the United States. According to Newman, Dwight D. Eisenhower “could not get it right”;  Jimmy Carter, who had been an officer aboard nuclear-powered submarines, pronounced it NOO-kee-ur; and Walter Mondale, in his 1984 bid for the presidency, repeatedly said NOO-kyuh-lur. “The word, correctly pronounced,” writes Newman, “somehow is too much for a fair part of the population, and education and experience seem to have nothing to do with it.” In The Diabolical Dictionary of Modern English, R.W. Jackson dryly echoes that sentiment by defining nuclear simply as “nucyaler.

Newman’s and Jackson’s cynicism reminds me of a debate I once heard between William F. Buckley, Jr., and the philosopher Mortimer Adler on whether everyone is inherently “ineducable.” Of course, Adler, as a teacher, was of the former opinion, and Buckley, who earns his living trying to make his ideological opponents look hopelessly dull and impervious to illumination, was of the latter.

I choose to believe that anyone in the possession of physiologically normal organs of speech and at least half a brain is capable of pronouncing nuclear correctly. As R.W. Burchfield (1996) points out, “the spectacular blunder of pronouncing [nuclear] as if it were spelled nuc-u-lar” is the result of a tempting misassociation with the many words ending in-ular (circular, particular, cellular, secular, molecular, jocular, avuncular, etc.). This error is one of the ear and eye more than the tongue, and it has persisted not because it is too difficult for some to say N(Y)OO-klee-ur but because they do not heed the spelling and hear the difference between the proper and improper pronunciations—which brings us to the matter of correction.

Those who do hear the mispronunciation and who say the word right (still a substantial majority of us, I think) are understandably reluctant to correct those who do not. Can you imagine, as Edwin Newman puts it, “how other and lesser members of the Carter administration found it tactful to pronounce [nuclear] during Cabinet meetings,” when President Carter and Vice President Mondale were mangling the word, albeit unwittingly at every turn?* In Shaw’s Pygmalion, the arrogant dialectician Henry Higgins “experiments” without the slightest compunction on his social inferior, the “guttersnipe” Liza Doolittle, teaching her to speak Received Standard English so he can win a bet. But who else feels comfortable correcting the pronunciation of anyone but a child without being asked to do so? It is a tricky matter even to correct family members and friends, and so with a neighbor, acquaintance, or coworker, most of us will not—and should not—presume to offer an unsolicited opinion. (Writing a book on the subject is different, for a book lays open its opinions only to those who freely choose to read it, and who are equally free to accept or reject the advice  it contains without compromising their dignity.)

On the other hand, we should and do reserve the right, in matter of language, to speak as we fit,  to decide for ourselves what is acceptable and unacceptable, and to pass tacit judgment on our peers.  When I began writing this book nearly every person with whom I discussed its contents asked ( and in some cases implored) me to decry. NOO-kyuh-lur, which made me wonder whether it might the Most Disdained and Detestable Beastly Mispronunciation in the language. People who care at all about how words are pronounced (with the expectation of linguist and lexicographers) seem to reserve their most vehement antipathy for NOO-kyuh-lur and it comes as no surprise to me that a whopping 99 percent of the usage panel of  Morris & Morris Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage (1985) condemned it. In usage notes devoted to a lame defense of the mispronunciation, M-W 10 (1993) and RHWC (1997) both admit that NOO-kyuh-lur is “disapproved of by many,” yet by just how many it is impossible to determine. On behalf of the indeterminate many who pronounce the word correctly, then, I appeal to the inadvertent many who do not : listen, and be errant no longer.

Molecular comes from molecule, and particular comes from particle, but there is no nucule to support nucular. Nuclear comes from nucleus—N(Y)OO-klee-us—which is almost never mispronounced. If you can say nucleus and you can nuke (the informal verb meaning to attack with nuclear weapons or, humorously, to microwave), then the proper pronunciation of nuclear is but a suffix away.

For more on correcting others’ pronunciation, see gondola. Also see artic, cupola, diminution, February, irrelevant, jewelry, Realtor.

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Obscure  uhb-SKYUUR.

The ob- in obscure is properly pronounced like ab- in about. Lately there has been a tendency among educated speakers to overpronounce this unstressed ob- and say ahb-SKYUUR (ahb- rhyming with slob). This overly audible ob- is fastidious to a fault and unnecessary. Although American Heritage 3 (1992) and M-W 10 (1993) now list the ahb- variant first, WNW 3 (1997) gives priority to the established uhb-, and Webster 2 (1934), American College (1952), WNW Guide (1984), and RHWC (1997) countenance only uhb-.

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Official  uh-FISH-ul. Don’t say oh-FISH-ul.

Some speakers think it sounds more uh-FISH-ul to say oh-FISH-ul., with the initial o long, as in no. This is an overpronunciation. Modern phoneticians call the initial vowel sound in this word a schwa (SHWAH). Lexicographers of the 19th and early 20th century called it “obscure.” All that means is that the first syllable of official, because it is not stressed, is pronounced like the a in ago, not like the o in open. See oblique, occasion, occult, occur, opinion.

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Often  AWF-in or AHF-in. Do not pronounce the t.

Before I give you my two cents on the t in often, let’s take a look at what various authorities have said about it since the late 18th century.

John Walker (1791), whose Critical Pronouncing Dictionary was one of the most respected and popular references both in England and America well into the 19th century, declared that “in often and soften the t is silent.”

“The sounding of the t,”  proclaims the legendary H.W. Fowler in Modern English Usage (1926), “which as the OED says is ‘not recognized by the dictionaries,’ is practised by two oddly consorted classes—the academic speakers who affect a more precise enunciation than their neighbours…& the uneasy half-literates who like to prove that they can spell….”

“The t in glisten is silent, even as it is in castle and often,” says Frank H. Vizetelly (1929), editor of Funk & Wagnalls New Standard (1913), “yet one occasionally hears pedants and provincials pronounce them [GLIS-ten] and [AWF-ten]. No pronouncing dictionary with a reputation to lose ever sounds the t in these words.”

“You don’t want a t in here any more than in soften,” advises Alfred H. Holt (1937).

   Webster 2 (1934), which sanctions only AWF-in, notes that “the pronunciation [AWF-tin], until recently generally considered as more or less illiterate, is not uncommon among the educated in some sections, and is often used in singing.”

According to Random House II (1987),

OFTEN was pronounced with a t- sound until the 17th century, when a pronunciation without the (t) came to predominate in the speech of the educated, in both North America and Great Britain, and the earlier pronunciation fell into disfavor. Common use of a spelling pronunciation has since restored the (t) for many speakers, and today [AWF-in] and [AWF-tin]…exist side by side. Although it is still sometimes criticized, OFTEN with a (t)  is now so widely heard from educated speakers that it has become fully standard once again.

“Nowadays,” says R.W. Burchfield (1996), editor of the OED 2 (1989), “many standard speakers use both  [AWF-in] and [AWF-tin], but the former pronunciation is the more common of the two.

What is going on here? After two hundred years of censure, has the t in often scratched and clawed its way back into acceptability? I would caution those who might be consoled by the comments of Random House II and Burchfield to heed the admonitions of the past and avoid pronouncing the t. Current dictionaries, including Random House II, do not give priority to AWF-tin, and it is much less common in educated speech and far more often disapproved of by cultivated speakers—particularly teachers of English, drama, and speech—than Random House II makes it appear. In 1932 the English lexicographer Henry Cecil Wyld called AWF-tin “vulgar” and “sham-refined,” and today the bad odor of class-conscious affectation still clings to it as persistently as ever. As if that were not enough, analogy is entirely unsupportive: no one pronounces the t in soften, listen, fasten, moisten, hasten, chaste, christen, and Christmas—so, once and for all, let’s do away with  the eccentric AWF-tin.

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Parental  puh-REN-tul. Do not say PAR-en-tul.

In parent (both the noun and the relatively new verb) the accent is on the first syllable, but in parental it shifts to the second. Dictionaries do not recognize first-syllable stress for parental, and WNW Guide (1984) calls it “not standard”—in other words, beastly.

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Pathos PAY-thahs (-thahs rhyming with pos in posse) or PAY-thaws (rhymes with play-toss).

The first pronunciation has the greater authority and is recommended.

In pathos, bathos, and ethos, the first vowel should have its long sound (PAY-, BAY-, and EE-) and -os is preferably pronounced –ahs, with a short o as in hot and jostle.

PAY-thahs is preferred by Lass & Lass (1976), the NBC Handbook (1984), Everyday Reader’s (1985), and Barnhart (1988), it is the only pronunciation in Oxford American (1980), Funk & Wagnalls Standard (1980), and OED 2 (1989), and it listed first by all four major current American dictionaries. These same four also recognize the alternative PAY-thaws; only two list the variant PAY-thohs (with a long o as in dose), which is not recommended. See cosmos, ethos.

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Patriot  PAY-tree-it.

According to Burchfield (1996), the British say PAY-tree-it. (PA- as in pat) or PAY-tree-it (PAY-like pay), “with the first perhaps slightly more common.” In the U.S. PAY-tree-it rules the roost. Current American dictionaries also recognize the variant PAY-tree-aht (-aht rhyming with dot). I have never heard anyone use that pronunciation, which strikes me as ridiculously exaggerated and pretentious, like saying chari-aht for chariot or idi-aht for idiot. Americans and Brits may differ on how to pronounce the first syllable of patriot, but we are happy to agree that the last syllable has an obscure o, as in riot and carrot.

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Pecan pi-KAHN (-KAHN rhyming with John) or pi-KAN (-KAN like can).

These are the pronunciations most often listed, and sometimes the only ones listed.  Older authorities often preferred pi-KAN, but in American speech today there is no doubt that pi-KAHN is the dominant pronunciation, and the four leading American dictionaries all list it first. Other recognized variants, in descending order of frequency listed, include PEE-kan, which the evidence of my ears tells me is chiefly Eastern and which Lass & Lass (1976) prefer, and Pee-KAHN which my ears tell me is chiefly Southern. Don’t say (ugh) PEEK-in.

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Porsche PORSH.

In my experience, how you pronounce this word/name depends largely on whether you own the automobile in question. Porsche does not appear in any of my references, so I must rely solely on the evidence of my ears, which tells me that those who own a Porsche (or wish they did) tend to prefer the disyllabic POR-shuh, while those who don’t (and could not care less) tend to prefer the monosyllabic PORSH.  Because the great majority of us don’t own (or aspire to own) a Porsche, I recommend the monosyllabic pronunciation as less ostentatious.    

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President PREZ-uh-dint (or -dent)

Don’t drop the middle syllable (-i-) from president and say PREZ-dint. That is sloppy. Also, even in your most rapid speech, don’t ever, ever slur over both the i and the d and pronounce president PREZ’nt, like present. I was astonished to discover that M-W 9 (1985) and 10 (1993) actually list this slovenly variant, implying that it is acceptable in cultivated speech. It is not! It’s beastly, and no other dictionary countenances it. Finally, don’t say PRES-uh-dint, with an s as in press. I have heard numerous newscasters make this mistake, and it irks me that they do not realize they are confusing the pronunciations of president (z for s) and precedent (s for c). The s in president should have the sound of z, and a peek into any dictionary will prove it.

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Rabid RAB-id. Do not say RAY-bid.

Rabid and rabies have different pronunciations. Rabid properly has a short a, as in rabbit. Rabies has a long a, as in ray.

The beastly mispronunciation of RAY-bid, with the long a of ray, is quite recent; M-W 7 (1972) is the first of my sources to record it. Two current dictionaries list RAY-bid—M-W 10 (1993) and WNW 3 (1997)—but both label it infrequent, and the two other leading current American dictionaries, American Heritage 3 (1992) and RHWC (1997), sanction only the proper pronunciation, RAB-id.

 Be careful: this recent RAY-bid is now running wild. Don’t let it bite you. If it does, you will surely start foaming at the mouth and uttering all sorts of other beastly monstrosities. 

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Ration RASH-in (recommended) or RAY-shin.

Both pronunciations are acceptable and have been heard in cultivated speech since the word entered English in the mid-19th century. OED 1 (1904 ed.) gave priority to RAY-shin, but by the 1930s RASH-in was the prevailing pronunciation in England. American dictionaries gave priority to RAY-shin until the 1940s, but since then RASH-in has been listed first (as it is in the four leading current American dictionaries).

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Realtor REE-ul-tur. Do not say REE-luh-tur.

A great many educated speakers have difficulty with this word. I have heard it mispronounced by radio and TV newspeople, by businesspeople, professionals, and people in high places, and by Realtors themselves. The problem comes from inadvertently switching the l and the a making rela- out of real-, which results in the beastly mispronunciation  REE-luh-tur. It can be resolved by carefully saying the word real and following it with –tur. See athlete, February, irrelevant, jewelry, nuclear.

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Repeat (verb, noun, adjective) ri-PEET.

The careful speaker always stresses the word repeat, in all parts of speech, on the second syllable, never on the first. When you ask someone to say something again, you say “Would you please repeat that?” (never repeat that again, which is redundant). When speaking of a TV  or radio show that comes on the air again, you say it is a rebroadcast, a rerun, or a rePEAT, not a REpeat. And when using the word in its newest sense, as an adjective, you say that it’s a rePEAT performance, not a REpeat performance, and that someone is a rePEAT offender, not a REpeat offender.

First-syllable stress for the noun repeat dates back at least to the 1930s, when Opdycke (1939) sternly objected to it. His disapproval is shared by many cultivated speakers today, apparently, for only one of the four leading current American dictionaries recognizes REE-peet as an alternative pronunciation, while the other three sanction only ri-PEET.

Larsen & Walker (1930) point out that most disyllabic words beginning with re- have their stress on the second syllable, “whether used as verbs, nouns, or  adjectives”—for example, refrain, relate, release, remove, reply, repeal, report, request, respect, result, retreat, return, revenge, revolt, and reward. The word repeat belongs squarely in this category and is a long standing exception to the rule for disyllabic nouns and verbs discussed under decrease. See also recess, recourse, redress, and research, which traditionally have their accent on the second syllable but which in varying degrees have been bucking the trend.

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Route ROOT or ROWT.

ROOT has been preferred or listed first in dictionaries since the mid-19th century. ROWT, however, has a long history as ROOT, and was preferred by many of the earliest authorities. In the first half of the 20th century ROWT was often labeled colloquial, provincial, or military; it is now well established in various engineering, transportation, delivery, and sales contexts.

I prefer ROOT for all senses of the word route, but it is difficult to fashion an argument that goes further than saying that is how I was taught to pronounce it, that is how most educated speakers around me said it, and that is the pronunciation that feels right and cultivated  to me. In my vocabulary, route will always be ROOT and rout ROWT, but many speakers nowadays prefer to pronounce both words ROWT. Since it cannot be stated unequivocally that one pronunciation of rout is right and the other wrong, I present the following historical evidence, which you can use to make up your mind, bolster your case, or live and let live, as you prefer.

In his Critical Pronouncing Dictionary of 1791, the English elocutionist John Walker prefers ROOT but notes that the word “is often pronounced so as to rhyme with doubt by respectable speakers.” In a later edition, Walker changed his course. “Upon a more accurate observation of the best usage,” he wrote, “I must give the preference to [ROWT]…notwithstanding its coincidence in sound with another word of a different meaning; the fewer French sounds of this diphthong we have in our language the better.”

Worcester (1860), who prefers ROOT, says, “Most of the orthopeists more recent than Walker give the preference to the pronunciation [ROOT].” Ayres (1894) says hat “there is abundant authority for pronouncing the word rowt; but this pronunciation is now very generally considered inelegant.” Vizetelly (1929) says the “best modern usage pronounces the word as if written root,” and Opdycke (1939) assigns ROWT to “colloquial and provincial usage.”

Funk & Wagnalls Standard (1897) countenances only ROOT, but the Century (1889-1914) sanctions ROWT as an alternative. Webster 2 (1934) says that ROOT “is now the generally accepted pronunciation, but in certain special cases rout (ou in out) prevails, as in military use, among railroad men, and, colloquially, of a delivery route.”

Since then ROWT has gained a good deal of ground, but ROOT still appears to hold the lead among educated speakers, and all four major current American dictionaries list in first.

Morris & Morris (1985) observe that “people like Army engineers, bus and plane dispatchers, and other professionally engaged in planning routes tend to pronounce route so it rhymes with ‘out.’ Pronouncing it as if it were spelled ‘root’ is, however, equally acceptable.

In Watching My Language (1997), William Safire writes, “[President George] Bush frowned on ‘the tax-and-spend route, which he pronounced ‘ROWT.’ That is not incorrect…. Most of us, however, have come to use ‘ROOT’ to mean ‘way, itinerary, journey, map’ spelled route, and pronounced the same as the root of a plant. We use ‘ROWT’ to pronounce the word spelled rout, meaning “resounding defeat; disorderly flight from battle; electoral debacle’” [p. 34]. It is perhaps worth noting that if Safire received any letters objecting to this assessment when it first appeared in his column  The New York Times Magazine, he does not reprint them in his book.

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Salmon SAM-un.

L silent, a as in ham. Anything else is beastly—er, fishy. See salmonella.

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Sandwich SAND-wich.

This word should be pronounced exactly as it is spelled. Do not drop the d and say SAN-wich, even in rapid speech, for this seemingly innocuous mispronunciation is construed by many as a sign of a careless speaker.

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Semi  SEM-ee (rhymes with Emmy), not SEM-eye.

Only a nitwit would say sem-eye-colon and sem-eye-circle, so why the big attraction to SEM-eye in so many other semi-words? “Don’t follow those who affectedly make the i long,” counsels Opdycke (1939). Avoid the appearance of semiliterate affectation. For all words beginning with the combining form semi-, say SEM-ee. However, for the word semi, meaning a tractor-trailer, SEM-eye is acceptable. See anti-.

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Senile SEE-nyl. (like see Nile). Do not say SEN-yl.

Senile is accented on the first syllable, which rhymes with glee, and the second syllable should rhyme with file.

Formerly the word was sometimes pronounced with a short i, SEE-nil, second syllable rhyming with pill.

In the 20th century this variant has gradually faded from the dictionaries and since the 1960s a new one has risen in its place: SEN-yl (SEN- as in send, -yl like aisle). The evidence indicates it is a homegrown American variant. It may have been a pedanticism based on the source of the word, the Latin senilis, pronounced se-NEE-lis, which comes in turn from senex, old, pronounced SEN-eks. Of course this “etymological pronunciation” ignores the more pertinent fact that the English word is divided se · nile, which calls for a long e in the stressed first syllable.

At any rate, the eccentric SEN-yl first appeared in Webster 3 (1961) labeled “appreciably less frequent”; today all four major dictionaries list it as an alternative, with two labeling it less common. OED 2 (1989) and Jones (1991), both British authorities, give only the traditional SEE-nyl, which, despite its venerable age—it was the preference of John Walker (1791) and other orthopeists of his day—shows no signs of infirmity or dotage. For a discussion of American vs. British pronunciation of –ile, see textile.  

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Sentence SEN-tints.

Don’t drop the t and pronounce the word as if it were spelled sennence. See fundamental, gentle, inter-. kindergarten, mental, rental.

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Similar SIM-i-lur.

Be careful not to insert a y sound in the second syllable of similar and say SIM-yuh-lur, as if the word were spelled simular. This is a major-league beastly mispronunciation. See jubilant.

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Spontaneity SPAHN-tuh-NEE-i-tee, not SPAHN-tuh-NAY-i-tee.

Pronounce the third, accented syllable with a long e, as in knee, not with a long a, as in nay. See deity, homogeneity, simultaneity.

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Substantive SUHB-stin-tiv, not suhb-STAN-tiv.

Substantial is stressed on the second syllable, but substance, substitute, and substantive are stressed on the first syllable. Three of the four major current American dictionaries give only SUHB-stin-tiv, and the fourth—M-W 10 (1993)—labels suhb-STAN-tiv “appreciably less common.”

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Succeed suk-SEED (like suck seed or sick seed said quickly).

The slovenly speaker pronounces succeed like secede (suh-SEED). The careful speaker preserves the k-s sound of the cc. See success.

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Syrup: SIR-up or SUR- up.

John Walker (1791) and Noah Webster (1828), among other early authorities, preferred the pronunciation SUH- rup (first syllable as in supper). In the 20th century, this was modified to SUR-up (first syllable like sir).  Though older authorities preferred SIR-up, Webster 2 (1934) noted that syrup “is nearly pronounced [SUR- up] by makers of maple syrup” and Holt (1937) reluctantly acknowledged that the first syllable was “headed in the same direction” as stir, stirrup, and squirrel. Today SUR- up (my preference) is perfectly acceptable, and “both pronunciations seem to be heard with equal frequency,” says WNW Guide (1984).

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Taurus TOR-us (TOR- as in torn).

I have heard certain well-educated folk mispronounce this word TOW-rus (TOW- as in tower). This is an example of how a little learning can be a misleading thing. TOW-rus reflects the Latin pronunciation, in which the diphthong au is pronounced OW. In English, however, this au diphthong has the sound of AW, which becomes OR when au precedes r, as in aural and auricle. Seeing as taurus has been an English word since 1400, it is foolish and bullheaded not to pronounce it TOR- us.

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Technical TEK-ni-kuul.

Take care to pronounce the tech-. Careless speakers say TET-ni-kuul.

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Theater THEE-uh-tur.

Properly, this word has three syllables, but when pronounced quickly in the flow of conversation it often comes out in two, THEER-tur. That is unobjectionable compared with the beastly mispronunciation thee-AY-tur, which Random House II (1987) calls “characteristic chiefly of uneducated speech” and WNW Guide  (1984) affirms is “generally disapproved.”

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Thesis (singular) THEE-sis; theses (plural) THEE-seez.

No literate speaker would be caught dead saying my books is or my pets is, but certain speakers who think their “higher education” requires them to speak a “higher” form of English will say my THEE-seez is on…..Be careful to distinguish the singular thesis from the plural theses in pronunciation and spelling. The same distinction applies to the singular hypothesis (hy-PAHTH-uh-sis) and plural hypotheses (hy-PAHTH-uh-seez). See basis, crisis, diagnosis.

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Tomato tuh-MAY-toh. Regionally (chiefly New England) and in Britain, tuh-MAH-toh. Canadian also tuh-MAT-oh.

I have a wonderful cartoon above my desk that captures everything I could say in ten books on pronunciation. It shows two scowling men standing back-to-back at daybreak.  Each is holding a basket of tomatoes, one marked tomato, the other marked to-mah-to. In a moment, one presumes, they will engage in a duel to a saucy death.

My mother, having grown up outside of Boston, has always said tuh-MAH-toh, even after fifty-odd years of living in New York City , where just about everyone says tuh-MAY-toh, and after forty-odd years of living with my father, who grew up in Indiana and also says tuh-MAY-toh. Miraculously, they have managed to get along, though duels over language, and language duels (at twenty paces), have been known to break out.

The majority of Americans say tuh-MAY-toh—which, despite my mother’s formidable influence, is my pronunciation, but it is clear that the tuh-MAH-toh sayers are not going to give in (they’ll just die out, I suppose), and there is no reason why they should. Not only is it what they grew up with and are accustomed to saying , it is also a matter of pride for many of them. So if you are a New Englander who says tuh-MAH-toh, or perhaps a Southerner who prefers tuh-MAH-toh, or if you are a Brit trying to fathom the (from your perspective) nasal-twanged U.S. of A., by all means do your thing. Just don’t criticize the rest of us for saying tuh-MAY-toh. If you lay off, we’ll lay off. Besides, there are a lot more of us than there are of you.

A warning for all speakers: do not slur the last syllable into an –uh or –ur sound. In his book On Language (1980), William Safire prints a letter from Liz Smith of The York Daily News:

In regard to “You say potato, I say potahto” there is a joke that when this unusual song was sung in English theater auditions, nobody got it because the singers invariably sang it: “You say potahto and I say potahto, You say tomahto and I say tomahto….” But when I was at the University of Texas, we had our own linguistic joke that went like this: “You say potato and I say pertayter, You say tomato and I say termayter!”

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Tribunal try-BYOO-nul.

Pronounce tri- like try; and stress the second syllable, never the first.

The noun tribune is properly accented on the first syllable, TRIB-yoon, but when it occurs in the names of newspapers one often hears second-syllable stress.

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Usage YOOS-ij.

Believe it or not, it used to be YOOZ-ij. Webster 2 (1934) says, “Though the preponderance of lexical authority is for [YOOZ-ij], investigation shows that [YOOS-ij] strongly prevails in America.”

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Usual YOO-zhoo-ul.

This word has three syllables. Don’t say YOO-zhul, which Burchfield (1996) calls  “slipshod.”

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Vaccinate VAK-si-NAYT. Don’t say VAS-i-NAYT.

The cc has the sound of x or k-s. See accept, accessory, flaccid, succinct.

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Vacuum VAK-yoom.

With the advent of the vacuum cleaner in the early 20th century the three-syllable VAK-yoo-um swiftly became endangered. Apparently it survives in Britain—OED 2 (1989) and Jones (1991) prefer it—but in American speech it is as rare as a spotted owl. Nevertheless, current American dictionaries all list it and will probably continue doing so for several generations after the poor creature is extinct.

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Vase VAYS (rhymes with case and lace) or VAYZ (rhymes with haze).

VAYS has been the prevailing American pronunciation since the days of Noah Webster, though VAYZ is just as venerable and is used by many cultivated speakers today. Both pronunciations were once widely heard in cultivated speech in England. In his Critical Pronouncing Dictionary, John Walker (1791) prefers VAYZ but remarks that

Mr. [Thomas] Sheridan [1780] has pronounced this word so has to rhyme with base, case &c. I have uniformly heard it pronounced with the s like z, and sometimes, by people of refinement, with the a like aw; but this, being too refined for the general ear, is now but seldom heard.

OED 2 (1989) notes that Jonathon Swift (1731) rhymed vase with face, and Lord Byron (1822) and Ralph Waldo Emerson (1847) rhymed it with grace.

The pronunciations VAHZ and VAWZ, noted by Walker above, are British. The former is the prevailing pronunciation, but the latter “has still some currency in England,” says OED 2. In an American speaker, say Morris & Morris (1985), VAHZ “is a mark of affectation.” I agree.

In You Don’t Say! Alfred H. Holt (1937) offers this amusing bit of verse:

Some greet with lusty “Rah”s

A reference to a vase.

Another bares his claws

At folks who don’t say vase.

But many use the phrase,

“Please put these in a vase,”

While still a stronger case

We now can make a vase.

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Vehement  VEE-uh-mint.

Stress the first syllable, never the second, and don’t pronounce the h. The same goes for the adverb vehemently: first-syllable stress, silent h. Second-syllable stress is, in dictionary lingo, “nonstandard,” which in this book means beastly. See vehicle.

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Visa VEE-zuh, not VEE-suh. The s is properly soft, as in rose.

In recent years, more and more people have been pronouncing this word VEE-suh (with s as in sun), no doubt in part because of the numerous TV commercials for the popular credit card, in which the voice-overs habitually mispronounce it VEE-suh. Webster 3 (1961) was the first to recognize the variant, marking it “appreciably less common.” Today it is unfortunately quite common, although two of the four major current American dictionaries—American Heritage 3 (1992) and RHWC (1997)—do not sanction it, and OED 2 (1989) also lists only VEE-zuh.

Visa came into English from French around 1830. In French, a single s between vowels is soft—pronounced like English z in maze or s in rose (e.g., maison)—and this has been the established way of pronouncing the s in visa since the word entered English. VEE-suh, with a hard s as in vista, is appropriate in Spanish, but not in English. Be sure to put some pizzazz in your visa. Say VEE-zuh. See vis-à-vis.

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Wassail  WAHS’l (rhymes with fossil and jostle).

Some speakers put a sail in wassail and say WAH-sayl or wah-SAYL, and these variants can be heard in certain old Christmas songs. Others pronounce the first syllable with a flat a as in wag: WAS’l or WAS-ayl—so say the dictionaries, anyway, though I have never heard these variants. All these pronunciations, along with WAHS’l, are represented in 20th-century dictionaries. However, the preponderance of authority from Walker (1791) to Worcester (1860) to Webster 2 (1934) to the NBC Handbook (1984) favors WAHS’l, and all four major current American dictionaries list this pronunciation first.

Wassailing—as in Here we go a-wassailing—is pronounced WAHS’l-ing, rhyming with the nonce word fossiling, and wassailer is pronounced WAHS’l-ur, rhyming with jostle’er.

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Washington WAHSH-ing-tun (or WAWSH-).

Don’t let an r creep into the first syllable: Warsh-ington is beastly. Also, don’t drop the g and say WAHSH-in-tun (careless), or clip a syllable and say WAHSH-tun (slovenly) See wash.

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Wintry  WIN-tree, not WIN-tur-ee.

Wintry, the proper spelling, is pronounced in two syllables, not three. The variant spelling wintery and its three-syllable pronunciation are best avoided.

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With WITH (th as in this and there), not WITH (rhymes with pith and myth).

This is an avowed pet peeve of mine, and by no means do all authorities agree with me on this punctilio, though many do. I believe firmly that in cultivated speech, with and words beginning with it—withal (with-AWL), withdraw, wither, withhold, within, without, withstand—should be pronounced with the “voiced” th of bathe, lather, and rather, and not with the “voiceless” th of path and bath. One advantage of following this rule is stronger, clearer speech. The voiced th is resonant; the voiceless th is lispy and weak.

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Xenophobia ZEN-uh-FOH-bee-uh, not ZEE-nuh-FOH-bee-uh.

Xenophobia, fear and hatred of foreigners or of anything strange or foreign, first appeared in print in 1919. Its antonym, xenomania (ZEN-uh-MAY-nee-uh), an inordinate attachment to foreign things, was coined about 1879 but is rarely used today. OED 1 (1928) recorded xenophobia as a nonce word and Webster 2 (1934) deemed it unworthy of its own entry, but both were kind enough to give its proper pronunciation: ZEN-uh-FOH-bee-uh, first syllable rhyming with men.

Until quite recently there was no confusion about this word. People pronounced the first syllable ZEN- and dictionaries continued to record only that pronunciation. Then one day, as the story goes, someone unfamiliar with the conventions of the language—probably a foreign spy—malevolently and methodically began to mispronounce the first syllable ZEE-. Soon all the xenomaniacs—in particular those members of the literati who delight in finding new outlets for their xenophilia (ZEN-uh-FIL-ee-uh), love of foreigners and foreign cultures—began copying this evil example, and the beastly mispronunciation ZEE-nun-FOH-bee-uh slipped into the dictionaries. For those who like to keep a dossier on such events, the point of infiltration was M-W 8 (1975).

No authority I am aware of favors this alien and erroneous ZEE-. All four major current American dictionaries and WNW Guide (1984) give ZEN- priority, and Lass & Lass (1976), the Quintessential Dictionary (1978), the NBC Handbook (1984), Everyday Reader’s (1985), Barnhart (1988), OED 2 (1989), and Jones (1991) prefer it.

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Yarmulke  YAHR-mul-kuh.

I grew up in New York City hearing Jews and gentiles alike pronounce this word YAH-muh-kuh, without an r and without an l, as if it were spelled yamaka. This pure laziness and an affront to the word’s linguistic and sacral tradition. “The caplet perched on the top of the head by observing Jewish males,” says Leo Rosten in The Joys of Yinglish (1989), is “pronounced YAHR-m’l-keh, to rhyme with ‘bar culpa.’” YAHR-mul-kuh is the preference of Lass & Lass (1976), the NBC Handbook (1984), Everyday Reader’s (1985), and Barnhart (1988), and the first pronunciation in WNW Guide (1984) and three of the four major current American dictionaries. Only M-W 10 (1993) gives priority to the uncultivated YAH-muh-kuh.

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Yolk YOHK (like yoke).

The spelling pronunciation YOHLK, with an audible l, was Noah Webster’s preference in his dictionary of 1828 and the preference of several earlier English authorities. This was undoubtedly due to the variant spelling yelk, pronounced YELK, which Dr. Johnson (1755), Walker (1791), and Smart (1836) favored. Since Worcester (1860), however, the spelling yolk and the pronunciation YOHK have prevailed, while yelk has disappeared and YOHLK has fallen into disfavor. According to M-W 10 (1993), YOHLK survives in the South among some cultivated speakers.

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Zealous ZEL-us. Do not say ZEE-lus.

A zealous person is full of zeal (rhymes with real), but there is no zeal in zealous. Careful speakers frown upon the beastly spelling pronunciation ZEE- lus, and dictionaries do not recognize it. The corresponding noun zealot is pronounced ZEL-it.

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Zodiacal zoh-DY-uh-kuul.

The accent is on the second syllable, which rhymes with dry. The beastly mispronunciation ZOH-dee-AK-ul is neither in the dictionaries nor in the stars.

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Zydeco ZY-duh-KOH (rhymes with try to go).

Random House II (1987) dates the word from 1955-1960, noting that it comes from the Louisiana French les haricots in “the dance-tune title Les haricots sonts pas sales.” I once heard a radio disk jockey, of all people, mispronounce the word zy-DEK-oh. Was he thinking of an art deco? The  stress is on zy-.

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Suggested Reading/Additional Resources

  • Charles Harrington Elster The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations: The Ultimate Opinionated Guide for the Well-Spoken, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999.

Sponsored by:

National Endowment for the Humanities Hewlett Foundation Ford Foundation   Arthur Vining Davis Foundations Carnegie Corporation

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for the Humanities

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Foundation

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Foundation

Rosalind P.
Walter

Arthur Vining
Davis Foundations

Carnegie
Corporation of New York