Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations by Charles Harrington Elster

Source of Book: I own this – library sale find

One of the big pitfalls for the avid reader is that of learning words from reading and not from speaking. In our glorious language of English, where the spelling of words is remarkably disconnected from their pronunciation, this can lead to mispronounced words. I certainly have been guilty of this, and have heard plenty of violations from others.

This book is a significant aid in overcoming that problem. Elster combines his two previous pronunciation guides, Is There a Cow in Moscow? and There is no Zoo in Zoology in one larger volume.

This book has been a very long term project for me. I have read little bits here and there for the last two years. A little at a time is best anyway, at least if the intent is to remember what has been read.

One of the first things I realized when reading this book is that pronunciations vary with time and place. Language tends to evolve over time, and many pronunciations from 100 years ago would sound absurd now. It also became obvious that, Henry Higgins notwithstanding, our neighbors across the ocean are as bad as we are. Not only have we adopted British pronunciations, often as a pseudo-sophisticated affectation; they have done the same with our peculiarities.

Also interesting to me were the words that appear to be in transition. The ostensibly correct pronunciation has been nearly lost, and a formerly unthinkable one has risen to prominence. This means that I disagreed in a few cases with the author.

In other cases, I discovered some incorrect or at least sloppy mispronunciations of my own. A few arose from hearing them mispronounced by others, but most came from lack of use in actual speech. I simply imagined what they would sound like from seeing the words on the page.

I particularly liked Elster’s explanations of common pronunciations, either correct or incorrect. For example, he introduces the concept of syncope (SING-kuh-pee), which is the loss of sounds or letters from the middle of words. This has occurred in very old words, such as Worcestershire (WUUS-tur-shur); and in common, everyday words like family and chocolate. In many cases, the compressed pronunciation is quite correct. However, this has led to errors in spelling as the omitted letters are actually omitted.

Elster also details which words should have all of the sounds pronounced. A lawyer, for example, would use subsidiary, and pronounce it suhb-SID-ee-ER-ee.

There are other interesting tidbits here and there, such as word history and origin. English has borrowed from many languages, including Latin and French. Some of these thefts occurred hundreds of years ago, so attempting to pronounce the words in the original language is incorrect, and pretentious. In other cases, the theft is recent, and the word itself may not have fully crossed over to and anglicized pronunciation. Elster particularly condemns using “pseudo-French” or “pseudo-Latin” by mixing the original and the anglicized pronunciation in the same word.

And then, there are the cases where the two are in conflict. I had a bit of a dispute with a cousin of mine regarding the unforgettable knight of fiction created by Miguel de Cervantes. Don Quixote is correctly pronounced kee-HOH-tay or kee-HOH-tee. If you can manage the actual Spanish pronunciation, even better. Despite being a figment of fiction, he is a “real” person, and should have his name pronounced as he would wish. By contrast, the adjective quixotic is pronounced kwik-SAHT-ik, as the term has been anglicized for centuries.

I also should mention two entries that particularly stuck in my mind.

First is the word “zounds”. (Rhyming with rounds, by the way.) I assumed this word originated in the 1960s along with groovy. So much for that theory. Elster traced it to a contraction of a profanity first seen in print in the 1600s. (It is shorthand for “by God’s wounds”. Who knew?) Why this one survived and ’sblood didn’t is one of the mysteries of life.

Second is synecdoche (si-NEK-duh-kee), which I had observed in print, but lacked the confidence to say in public. I thus avoided it in writing for fear that I might be asked about it and misspeak. Now that I know without a doubt, I intend to use this word in future reviews and essays. You have been warned!

This book is an excellent addition to the reader, writer, and speaker’s bookshelf. It shall reside on mine with other favorite reference books: Strunk & White, Eats, Shoots, and Leaves, and a few by Richard Lederer.

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