Say It Again, Sam

It has been a while since our last pronunciation column, so here’s another group of familiar words whose traditional pronunciations may surprise you. (Note: capital letters denote a stressed syllable.)

Antarctica  Like the elusive first r in February, the first c in this word is often carelessly dropped: it’s ant-ARC-tica, not ant-AR-tica.

Err  Since to err is to make an error, it seems logical to say “air”—but who said English is logical? The correct way to say err is to rhyme it with her.

Inherent  Properly, in-HEER-ent. Most people say in-HAIR-ent, but that’s wrong and we can prove it: How do you say adherent?

Covert  Most say CO-vert, rhymes with overt. But it’s traditionally pronounced CUV-ert, as in “cover” plus a t. You may not hear CUV-ert much these days, but it is still listed in the 2011 American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.

Nuptial  It’s two syllables: NUP-shul. A lot of people, including many in the media, say NUP-shu-ul. How do they get “shu-ul” from tial?

Naiveté  Should be nah-eve-TAY. More and more broadcasters are polluting the airwaves by pronouncing this as a four-syllable word: ny-EVE-it-tay, ny-EVE-itty, or ny-EV-itty. The 1999 Webster’s New World dictionary lists only the three-syllable pronunciation, but the 2014 Webster’s New World has caved, giving the four-syllable alternatives unwarranted legitimacy. Charles Harrington Elster, in his Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations, calls the four-syllable variants “illogical.” Elster’s point: naive is two syllables, and is one syllable. Since when does two plus one equal four?

Margarine  Relax, you’re saying it right. But when it was coined by the French in the 1870s, margarine had the same first two syllables as Margaret and the third syllable rhymed with clean. Yes, believe it or not, people used to say MARG-a-reen—hard g, plus “een” on the end.

Our 1941 Webster’s New International Dictionary lists but two possible pronunciations for margarine, preferring MARJ-a-reen over MARG-a-reen. So seventy-four years ago, it was not usual for the third syllable to be pronounced “in” rather than “een.”

Twenty-seven years later, the 1968 edition of Random House’s American College Dictionary listed “marj” and “marg,” and said the final syllable could be pronounced either “in” or “een.” And as recently as 1980, the American Heritage Dictionary listed “marj” and “marg,” but by then “een” was gone.

Standard pronunciations evolve, and margarine has done more than its share of evolving over the last 140 years. But today “MARJ-a-rin” has won out.


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11 Comments on Say It Again, Sam

11 responses to “Say It Again, Sam”

  1. Amy says:

    I have a question about the use of italics and quotation marks when referring to words, but I don’t know where to ask it. I noticed them both being used here, so I thought I’d ask on this post. What is the rule in a situation where I am referring to a word? I’m not sure how to adequately phrase what I’m saying, so I’ll use one of your sentences as an example: “Most say CO-vert, rhymes with overt. But it’s traditionally pronounced CUV-ert, as in “cover” plus a t.” The word “overt” was italicized, but “cover” was in quotation marks. I am trying to understand how it is supposed to be written. Should my previous sentence have had them both in italics or quotes? Thank you!!

    • In the example sentence, italics were used for overt to indicate that it was being referred to as the word itself. “Cover” was put in quotation marks because it indicated a pronunciation.

  2. Fred B. says:

    How unusual for the French to pronounce the hard g. That would be the German pronunciation.

  3. Mary Ann M. says:

    I have to say, I love all your newsletters, but especially the mispronunciation ones… I admit I mangle a few, so I appreciate the correction!

  4. Robin H. says:

    I was just thinking of you when your email arrived! I had just heard another professional chef pronounce “culinary” KULL-in-ary. Aaaargh! I wondered if you knew a way to get people to stop that? They wouldn’t pronounce the little Valentine guy KUH-pid or say a KUBB-ik yard or talk about fingernail KUTT-i-kulls.

    Do you think your campaign against FEB-yoo-ary had any effect? (I guess we won’t find out for several months.) Thank you for putting the first “r” back in “February.”

  5. Shiv A. says:

    I still say marjareen

  6. Ann M. says:

    I laughed when I saw your comments about nuptial. I have always lived in St. Louis, home of the Cardinals and the fabulous #6 Stan “the man” Musial, who was revered by all who knew him…or knew of him. A few years ago, SOMEBODY (a sports announcer, no doubt) started pronouncing Stan’s last name as “MEW-shu-ul”! It is so grating. I have a friend who is Stan’s great nephew, and it drives him nuts. The name is pronounced today the same way it always was: “MEW-zee-al”…but, for some odd reason, broadcasters simply will not ask people how to pronounce their own names.

    As always, I look forward to reading your newsletter and learning if I need to pay attention to some grammar glitch that could mar my otherwise 100%, A+ grammar usage.

  7. CJ T. says:

    Thank you for these. I love them and have one to add: for pronounced fur. Ugh.

    My grandmother used to chide me when I pronounced for as fur with “fur, what fur, cat fur to make kitten britches?”
    Clearly it stuck with me.

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