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Pronunciation Only Matters When You Speak

A cautionary tale for those who are cavalier about pronunciation: In 2003, the then president of the United States made his first presidential visit to Nevada and repeatedly pronounced it “nuh-VAHD-a.” Residents of the state got testy—it’s nuh-VAD-a, and they felt that the commander in chief should know it. The next time he spoke there, he made sure to say “nuh-VAD-a,” adding archly, “You didn’t think I’d get it right, did you?”

Here are some other pronunciations to ponder:

Vase  The Brits say “vahz,” but we don’t. It rhymes with face or phase in American speech.

Decadent   Given the state of things, this is a word you hear a lot, but not its traditional pronunciation: dik-CAY-dint (first two syllables pronounced like decay), rather than DECK-a-dint. We have to admit that this one is all but a lost cause, although if you think about it, it makes sense to stress the decay in decadent.

Cadre  We recommend CAD-ree. Yes, we know cadre is now commonly pronounced KAH-dray, but it wasn’t always so. In the 1960s the preferred pronunciation was KAH-der, with CAD-ree as an alternative. KAH-dray was not an option.

Culinary  You can’t go wrong with KYOO-lin-ary, although these days you are more likely to hear CULL-in-ary, or even COO-lin-ary. In 1956, Webster’s New World listed only KYOO-lin-ary. In 1966, The Random House Dictionary of the English Language preferred KYOO-lin-ary but made CULL-in-ary a second option. Regrettably, the online American Heritage dictionary now leads with CULL-in-ary, but it lists KYOO-lin-ary second.

Acumen  This word for “keen insight” is usually pronounced “ACK-ya-min,” but many sticklers object. The 1956 Webster’s allowed only uh-KYEW-min (rhymes with luck human), but ten years later, Random House listed ACK-ya-min as a second choice. The Oxford online dictionary accepts ACK-ya-min but still prefers uh-KYEW-min. So do we.

Schizophrenia  We prefer skit-sa-FREE-nia, and so do we (joke). Nowadays there is general agreement on the first two syllables: skit-sa. But are the next two syllables pronounced “FREE-nia” or “FREN-ia”? The 2014 Webster’s New World and the online American Heritage accept both. But going back a few decades, the 1968 Random House American College Dictionary accepts only FREE-nia. And get this: it prefers skiz-a-FREE-nia, the “skiz” rhyming with whiz. It lists skit-sa-FREE-nia second. No FREN-ia in sight.

Halley’s Comet  Make it HAL-lee’s. The two l’s make Halley an exact rhyme with valley. The last name of the astronomer Edmund Halley (1656-1742) is often mispronounced HAY-lee. That would be understandable if it were “Haley’s Comet,” a frequent misspelling. Some say HAH-lee’s or HAW-lee’s, both of which are more acceptable than HAY-lee’s.

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