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Archive for Monday, September 15, 1997

ONLY WEBSTER KNOWS FOR SURE

September 15, 1997

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ONLY WEBSTER KNOWS FOR SURE by Marsha Henry Goff

Don't you just hate to discover that you've been mispronouncing a word almost your entire life? Who among us didn't start out pronouncing hyperbole hyper-bowl? And has anyone born outside of France not said fa-kade instead of facade? How about tie-ran-ie for tyranny? Or pot-pour-ie for potpourri? My silliest mispronunciation stayed with me for decades. Even now I remember the book -- ``Wake of the Red Witch,'' one of my mother's Literary Guild Book Club selections -- in which I first encountered that word. While still in elementary school, I was allowed to read most of my parents' books, including ``A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,'' which shocked the socks off my fourth-grade teacher. Whenever I encountered an unfamiliar word -- and there were many -- I simply made up a pronunciation that sounded right to me. So it was with fusillade. The only time I had occasion to use the word out loud in public was a few years ago when my friend Roberta and I walked a couple of miles into the country to an old wooden-decked bridge over the Wakarusa River. As we gazed over the railing to the water below, we saw an orange juice can floating along with the current.

We decided to sink the can by throwing rocks at it and, when we were unsuccessful, I suggested, "Let's throw a full-uh-sade at it." Roberta looked puzzled. "Do you mean a fusillade?" she inquired. "I don't know," I said. "Do I?" At any rate, that's a mispronunciation I haven't made since ... of course, I also haven't had occasion to use the word because, unfortunately, there are only so many orange juice cans that need sinking. Although I have never been diagnosed as being dyslexic, my mispronunciation of fusillade does make you wonder. My sisters have had their troubles with words, too. My youngest sibling encountered the word pigsty and asked her husband, "What's a pig-stee?" Another sister mentioned that she was going to a jean-uh-colo-jist (don't laugh, it could be a gynecologist who is just a real casual dresser). My husband still blushes when he remembers a ninth-grade English class experience where he pronounced Canadian Can-uh-DEE-an. That sort of tells you how rare his mispronunciations are. The problem is that not many people are as candid as my friend Roberta in correcting a friend's mispronunciation. And not everyone wants to be corrected.

Some people try to tactfully make the correction by promptly using the word properly in a sentence, hoping that the mispronouncing offender gets the drift. However, such an attempt has its pitfalls.

I once used the word "apprised" in a conversation with a science teacher. A couple of seconds later he worked into the conversation a sentence similar to mine in which he substituted the word "appraised" for apprised, with just enough emphasis to let me know that he was correcting my pronunciation of the word. I've often wondered if he has since learned that apprised and appraised are separate words. Education helps but doesn't completely eliminate embarrassing mistakes in pronouncing words. It happens to the best and brightest. My dad was once in an audience when the head of a university engineering department apologized for interior building construction in progress by saying, "Please excuse the mess. We're in the process of re-NOV-eee-a-ting." And sometimes, mispronunciation occurs because the powers (usually news anchors) that decide how words are pronounced simply can't make up their minds. For years, I said Care-rib-BEE-an. Then, just as I learned to say Ca-RIB-be-an, they're calling it Care-rib-BEE-an again. And remember how kids used to snicker about how the planet Uranus was pronounced? I'm sure you do. Well, now it's Urine-us and I don't think that sounds a whole lot better. Still, I've lived long enough to know that mispronunciation -- however embarrassing -- isn't really a problem. Only lack of communication is.

-- Marsha Henry Goff is a free-lance writer in Lawrence. Her e-mail address is mhgink@ljworld.com.

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