~a column by Colleen O’Brien

The English language is so much fun. There are a million words in it and about 100,000 ways to use them incorrectly. American English delights in promoting confusion or downright dumbfoundedness, both in meaning and in pronunciation.

Forte is an impossible word. This word meaning strength is pronounced fort and spelled the same as the word for loud in music — forte; but this musical forte is pronounced fortay. If what you wish to say is that someone is strong in some endeavor — “His forte is telling jokes” — you pronounce it “fort.” If you want to talk about a piece of music that needs to be loud, you say, “Play it forte (for tay).” If I say, “My forte is pronouncing words correctly,” and I pronounce it “fort,” people look at me in confusion. And if I say “for-tay,” I cringe, waiting for my seventh grade English maven Miss Field’s scathing remark.

I have a friend who, when talking about pecans, says “pee’-can.” I say “pe-cahn’.” These are regionalisms, and either is okay. Although I heard a Georgian, where pecans thrive, once say he thought a pee can was something his grandparents kept under the bed.

When people mispronounce words, I try to stay out of it, even though when I mispronounce something I prefer to be told; I don’t want to be wandering around saying “gerbil” with a hard “g” (as in the babyfood “Gerber’s”) — which I did once, having never said the word aloud. Once is enough: the entire group I was speaking to laughed quite a bit before correcting me.

I know someone who mispronounces the word “albeit,” which is pronounced “ahl-bee’-it” in most circles. She says it like this — “ahl-bate.” I am incapable of correcting this woman, partly because in our American English the two letters “e” and “i” in that order are correctly pronounced “ay,” like in sleigh or reins, so “ahl-bate” could be right, right?

Recently I listened to a brief profile of Demeter, Greek goddess of agriculture. I called her “De meet’ er” and everyone else called her “Dem’ i ter.” Either one is correct, but in our conversation after the presentation, I felt we were talking about two different women.

There are plenty of words that seem related but are at opposite ends of the definition ruler. For example, there is a complete dissonance between the two so-similar words socialism and socialite. Socialism is a way of governing in which there is no private property; socialite is a prominent person, often a young woman of beauty and means. The first is a relative of Communisim; the second of Capitalism.

The word sanguine means bloody, bloodthirsty as well as cheerful, optimistic, positive and confident. I hardly ever use it. If I say “I feel sanguine,” who wants to wait around to see if I’m homicidal or happy?

Two words we don’t use all that much these days — calvary and cavalry — are really easy to mix up. As are interment (burial) and internment (imprisonment), which I see now and then confused in headlines. Easy enough to do, I guess — if you’re imprisoned, it could be considered a kind of burial; and once you’re dead and buried it is a kind of prison-like situation. Actually, all of these words are fun to use incorrectly to see who raises the eyebrow.

I became confused about the word cleave the first time I looked it up. It means to cut in half, as in “He used his machete to cleave the bandit in half.” Or it means to cling to, as in “I will cleave to you until the end,” not exactly a reassuring statement if you know both definitions.

And the simple word fast? Hold it tightly (The pony was held fast by a rope.”); or move quickly (“The pony ran away as fast as he could.”)

Last summer when I watched a low-zooming plane dust the soybeans in a field along the bike path, I thought on my way home about dusting my furniture. One dust means to lay it on, one dust means to take it off.

Oversight is a good one — meaning watching over, as in “The oversight committee made sure he did it right.” And then “He left out the salt, which was an oversight,” meaning that his oversight wasn’t that ept.

Then there is “seed the orange” and “seed the crop” — one is to remove the seeds, the other is to place them somewhere purposefully.

I do like the word trim a lot, because I can trim my hair by cutting it off or by putting bows in it. Or trim the Christmas tree by stringing lights on it or by cutting branches off it.

Back to pronunciations — there is the name Colleen, sometimes pronounced “call-een” and other times “coal-een.” And, for those of you who know me and my sister, now and then pronounced “Denise.”

It’s dangerous out there, thinking you know what you’re saying and how you’re saying it. But, it can be fun if you’re playing the game of it with someone. Or you like to laugh along with people thinking you’re stupid.

Although not caring — about looking stupid or pronouncing everything correctly — is an option.


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