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You Lost Me After "Feb"

In honor of both our present month as well as the birthday month of our late writer Tom Stern, today we repeat his classic pronunciation article first published on February 3, 2016.


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

*****

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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