Grammar You Lost Me After “Feb” |
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

You Lost Me After “Feb”

Feb-yoo-ary. Febber-ary. Feb-wary. Can’t anyone around here say “feb-roo-ary”?

It’s time to revisit dissimilation, the labored linguistic theory that purports to explain why so many of us don’t say February’s two r’s. The online American Heritage dictionary has the following usage note at “February”: “The loss of the first r in this pronunciation can be accounted for by the phonological process known as dissimilation, by which similar sounds in a word tend to become less similar.”

Translation: the second r in February makes people mispronounce the first r.

My first reaction was that some intellectuals with too much time on their hands had come up with a fancy term for slovenly speech. Isn’t dissimilation merely an erudite synonym for tongue-twister? I’m not quite ready to buy all this “phonological process” business; the simple truth is that people generally are hurried speakers, and saying words like February takes a little extra care.

Here are some other hard-to-enunciate dissimilation words:

Asterisk  The second s gets dropped, and we are left with the icky “aster-ick.”

Candidate  People say the first two syllables as if they were saying “Canada.”

Hierarchy  You often hear “high-arky,” with the er slurred. We should aim “higher.”

Prerogative  I bet most people think this word is spelled “perogative,” because that’s typically what you hear. Only careful speakers say the first r: pre-rahg-ative.

Minutiae  Here’s a word no one says right. The traditional pronunciation, believe it or not, is min-OO-she-ee or min-YOO-she-ee. Good luck with that. I’ve never heard anything but “min-oo-sha,” because “sha” is a whole lot easier than saying two long-e syllables, one right after the other

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I’ve put in enough time on this odd little topic to observe that dissimilation has a flip side. I’m calling it “impulsive echoing”: the tendency to irrationally add similar sounds within words, despite their spelling. Check these out:

Ouija board  If you are American, either you or someone you know says “wee-jee.” The standard pronunciation is WEE-ja. How does ja become “jee” unless impulsive echoing is real?

Cummerbund  Look at that spelling and then tell me why so many speakers add a phantom b: “cumber-bund.”

Pundit  I’ve heard seasoned public figures—hello, Hillary Clinton—say “pundint.”

Whirlwind  I’ve also heard veteran TV journalists—hello, Wolf Blitzer—say “world wind.”

Sherbet  That’s how you spell it, all right. What happens when the people who add a second r and say “sher-bert” meet the people who drop the first r in February?

—Tom Stern

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18 responses to “You Lost Me After “Feb””

  1. Susan L. says:

    What about comfortable and uncomfortable, usually pronounced “confterbul” and “unconfterbul”?

  2. Jared R. says:

    I have another one for you: forward. A lot of people drop the first “r” and it ends up “foward.” I’ve noticed it’s a particular problem among east coasters.

  3. Sandra M. says:

    Makes you want to pull your hair out!!

  4. Bob G. says:

    I look forward toward each week’s newsletter, no less this one, but with one bone to pick: Ouija is a compound of French oui (“wee”) and German ja (“yah”), both for “yes.” Why, then, is it supposed to be pronounced “WEE-zha”?

  5. David P. says:

    Two other incorrectly spoken words are tenterhooks and decrepit, pronounced tenderhooks and decrepid.

  6. Barbara M. says:

    Love this one! Have you covered the grammatical error that I’ve heard very important people make: the use of is, is. “The reason more folks don’t vote for this tax increase is, is that they are short-sighted.” Our President says “is, is” quite often!

  7. Carmel S. says:

    I am in complete agreement with you. I live in Australia and we have just had the Australian Open Tennis in Melbourne. Every single TV commentator irritated the dickens out of me when they would say ‘fith’ instead of ‘fifth’, and the latest trend seems to be to construct a sentence and put the name of the person they are referring to right at the end of the sentence, ie “She is hitting her serves at 200 kph, Serena.” They did this with every single player they were commenting on and it drove me nuts. I find TV presenters are often guilty of poor pronunciation these days, particularly bad as they of all people really should know better, arrrrgggghhhhh!!! Wasssa matta wif dem????

    Do keep up your brilliant newsletters as I love to read them each week.

  8. Chris says:

    I often hear people pronounce “regularly” as “reguly”.

  9. Peter says:

    This is fun, but I have to admit you caught me with Cummerbund, I’m guilty!
    Another that gets me is Spigot. It is often spoken and spelled like “spiket”. Do you have an explanation how this has become normal? Thanks for your expertise in your emails. I appreciate this so much.

  10. Sandy says:

    Every politician and newscaster should learn that it’s pronounced nu-klee-er not nu-kyu-ler.

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