Friday, September 04, 2009


Die, consummate offal!

In a comment to my recent item about plurals, Sue VanHattum had this to say:

From math class:
vertex, vertices
die, dice

The die is the harder one. I always explain what I’m saying.

My response to that said that the issue of explaining something I’ve pronounced needs a blog post of its own.

This is that.

As I said in my response to Sue’s comment, I haven’t found that “die” is really a problem: the context pretty much makes it clear that I’m talking about one of those cubes with the dots on it, and even if someone’s never heard the singular before, he’ll just look at me funny... but will figure it out.

On the other hand, “offal” is probably at the top of the puzzlement list. Some people pronounce it with a long “o”, to try to avoid confusion: OH-ful. But that pronunciation is just... well... awful. It’s correctly pronounced with the first syllable like the word “off” (as the stuff that’s been cast off), and, unfortunately, that means that when Americans say them, “offal” and “awful” sound pretty much the same.[1] Given, of course, that the latter is a far more common word, references to offal usually leave others wondering how the word can possibly become a noun.

“Balm” is tricky as well: Americans pronounce it about the same as we pronounce “bomb” — and in this case, they’re both nouns. One soothes; the other decidedly doesn’t.

“Consummate”: The verb is pronounced KON-su-mate, with a long “a” and stress on the leading syllable. But the adjective is, as is sometimes the case in English, pronounced differently: kən-SUM-ət — the “a” becomes a schwa and the stress moves to the penultimate syllable. Just about no one gets this right, but dictionaries such as American Heritage still insist on it.

There are also some where I’m the one who insists. I stay with pronunciations that I learned, and that in some cases American Heritage still lists first. But the alternative pronunciations are accepted by the American Heritage folks, and are listed as well. And in some cases, the “alternatives” are preferred, and it’s the pedant in me that stays obstinate.

One can refer to one’s long suit[2] as one’s “forte”, but please pronounce it as fort, without a final long-a sound. The word comes from French. And note that the musical term that’s spelled the same way comes to us from Italian, and is pronounced FOR-tay. American Heritage has a usage note about it:[3]

Usage Note: The word forte, coming from French fort, should properly be pronounced with one syllable, like the English word fort. Common usage, however, prefers the two-syllable pronunciation, (fôr'tā'), which has been influenced possibly by the music term forte borrowed from Italian. In a recent survey a strong majority of the Usage Panel, 74 percent, preferred the two-syllable pronunciation. The result is a delicate situation; speakers who are aware of the origin of the word may wish to continue to pronounce it as one syllable but at an increasing risk of puzzling their listeners.

A stern or gloomy person might be called “dour”, and that rhymes with “tour”. It does not rhyme with “sour”; it does not sound like “dower”. It comes from the Latin for “hard”, durus. But American Heritage has this to say:

Usage Note: The word dour, which is etymologically related to duress and endure, traditionally rhymes with tour. The variant pronunciation that rhymes with sour is, however, widely used and must be considered acceptable. In a recent survey, 65 percent of the Usage Panel preferred the traditional pronunciation, and 33 percent preferred the variant.

A “schism” — a division into opposing factions — is not a good thing. Its original pronunciation, though is: SIZ-əm, soft and mellifluous. Almost everyone, though, says SKIZ-əm, with that hard “k” sound. The change came a long time ago, moving the English form back to its Greek roots. I should probably change on this one, because of the etymology and the ubiquity of the latter pronunciation. Again, American Heritage:

Usage Note: The word schism, which was originally spelled scisme in English, is traditionally pronounced (sĭz'əm). However, in the 16th century the word was respelled with an initial sch in order to conform to its Latin and Greek forms. From this spelling arose the pronunciation (skĭz'əm). Long regarded as incorrect, it became so common in both British and American English that it gained acceptability as a standard variant. Evidence indicates, however, that it is now the preferred pronunciation, at least in American English. In a recent survey 61 percent of the Usage Panel indicated that they use (skĭz'əm), while 31 percent said they use (sĭz'əm). A smaller number, 8 percent, preferred a third pronunciation, (shĭz'əm).

Something that’s “short-lived” has a short life. Long “i”. So use a long “i” in “short-lived” as well, please. This one’s less far gone than some of the others: I do hear the correct pronunciation quite often, though I hear a short “i” more. Once more, American Heritage has a usage note:

Usage Note: The pronunciation (-līvd) is etymologically correct since the compound is derived from the noun life, rather than from the verb live. But the pronunciation (-lĭvd) is by now so common that it cannot be considered an error. In the most recent survey 43 percent of the Usage Panel preferred (-lĭvd), 39 percent preferred (-līvd), and 18 percent found both pronunciations equally acceptable.


[1] Some of these, such as “offal” and “balm”, present no confusion to the British, who pronounce the vowels quite differently.

[2] Some people say “strong suit”; I’ve always used “long suit”. My trusty American Heritage supports that, listing the latter as the primary entry, and the former as a pointer to it.

[3] The wonderful usage notes are one of the reasons I love American Heritage so, and use it as my primary dictionary.


Ray said...

I must comment on this one, at least in brief, before I leave for my holidays.

As you correctly state, the word "consummate" has two distinct pronunciations, depending upon usage as an adjective or a verb. However, I would take issue with your descriptions of those pronunciations.

For the adjective, we Brits tend to emphasise the first syllable, and then run the last two syllables together, so that it sounds something like "KONS-you-mut" (although the 'mut' is cut very short, such that the 'u' sound is barely there at all). When used as a verb, we say it as "KONS-you-MATE".

At least, those are my pronunciations. But I know they are the correct ones. :-)

One word that really had me mystified for quite a long time when I moved here was "rider". Not the person who rides a horse, mind you, but the one who evidently rides books. It finally dawned on me that "rider" and "writer" sound identical in the Merkin language, and that one desperately needs context in order to determine which is intended.

I could go on and on, language being one of my passions, but Cape Cod is calling...

Sue VanHattum said...

I forgot to check 'follow comments', so missed your previous comment on die and dice. (I wish I could get google reader to include comments automatically with all the blogs I follow.) I have had 'the die is cast' wrong all these years, thinking it was the mold that had been prepared. Fascinating!

>I haven’t found that “die” is really a problem...

As a teacher, and as someone who often uses a way bigger vocabulary than those around me, I explain even things that seem obvious. (Obviousness being in the eye of the beholder.) I don't want my students tripping over some strange word I used, when I'm hoping they'll be thinking about probability issues.

Barry Leiba said...

Sue, this blog has a comment feed, as well as an entries feed — see the top of the left sidebar for the pointer. The comment volume is low enough that just following all the comments, even to entries you don't care about, isn't bad.

Each post has a separate comment feed also, and there's a pointer to that at the end of the entry. Personally, I can't be bothered with telling my feed reader to subscribe and unsubscribe to individual post comment feeds, but it's an option if it works for you.