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JACK SMITH ON SUNDAY

You Say Potato . . . : . . . and What the Other Guy Says Is But One Example of a Pronunciation Gap

May 07, 1989|JACK SMITH

WE WHO THINK that our pronunciation is correct may be surprised by "There Is No Zoo in Zoology (and Other Beastly Mispronunciations)," a Collier book by Charles Harrington Elster of San Diego.

With wit, scholarship and much personal opinion, Elster tells us the way that many commonly mispronounced words should be pronounced. He notes that many words are consistently mispronounced by our political leaders (President Eisenhower never could get nuclear ) and by radio and television talkers.

It would be pointless of me to review this book without focusing on the words that I have been mispronouncing; there is no point in reading it simply to verify what I already know.

Elster recalls that his mother kept a Webster's Second International Edition on the dining-room table and that whenever anyone mispronounced a word, he or she was told to look it up. Thus, the correct pronunciations he selects are generally standard--those preferred by most authorities.

He concedes that the language changes constantly, but he adheres to Alexander Pope's advice on words:

Be not the first by whom the new are tried.

Nor yet the last to lay the old aside.

I knew that the word accessory is pronounced ak-SES-uh-ree , not uh-SES-uh-ree ; but Elster nailed me on aqua. I've always pronounced it AHK-wa . He says: It's AK-wa --A as in cat , not as in father . That goes also for aquaplane , aquamarine and aqueduct.

Now that coitus may be used in polite company, I'm also afraid that I have been mispronouncing it. It is not koh-EYE-tus (which is what I thought it was), ko-AY-tus or COY-tus . All those, Elster says, may be found in the Kamasutra but not in any dictionary. So, if the subject should come up, the preferred pronunciation is KOH-i-tus .

I am chagrined to find that I have been pronouncing coupon incorrectly for years. It's KOO-pahn , not KYOO-pahn . I learned the latter pronunciation from my mother, who also taught me to pronounce wash as warsh . Elster says the R sound has to go.

I am stunned to find that daiquiri (that exotic drink) is pronounced DY-kuh-ree , not DAK-uh-ree , which is how my wife pronounces it when she orders one. Fortunately, I have given them up and may never be obliged to use the word again.

It is not a word that often comes up, but I'm afraid that I have also been mispronouncing guillotine . It is not GEE-uh-teen , Elster says, but GIL-uh-teen . "The word has long been anglicized and the Ls should be pronounced."

I have never been sure how to say long-lived , vacillating between LIVD and LYVD . It's LYVD , Elster says, the word coming from life , not live .

I rarely give a paean, but from now on when I do, I will say PEE-an , not PAY-an . Also, I've always pronounced the word piquant as pee-KHANT . Not right. It's PEE-kint . Somehow that doesn't sound as piquant to me. Also, still in the Ps, I must try to get the L out of psalm . It's SAHM , as in calm.

I am of two minds about valet . I have always pronounced it VAL-it , since it has long since been anglicized. As Elster notes, VAL-ay and val-AY are pseudo French. He makes an exception for valet parking, which, he says, "seems to have been created to provide a socially acceptable outlet for the potentially destructive impulses of young male drivers." To avoid val-AY for the correct VAL-it , Elster says, would seem to be pedantic. In this case, I choose pedantry.

I am happy to see Elster's entry on chaise longue ( shayz-LAWNG ), which is French for long chair , but is often misspelled and mispronounced as chase lounge , giving the impression that this piece of furniture is a lounge upon which one pursues a romantic object.

He also points out that forte , meaning one's strong point, is pronounced FORT , not for-TAY . Broadcasters almost never get that right. Few of us say thee-AYT-ur anymore, but if you do, Elster warns, you may be thought uneducated. Or worse, you may be thought to be from the South. It's THEE-uh-tur .

And for heaven's sake, let's try to get nuclear right. It's NOO-klee-ur , not NOO-kyuh-lur.

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