Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Words I Can't Decide How to Pronounce

Pecan — Is it me, or does "pe-CAN" sound low rent and "pe-CAHN" sound like low-rent trying to sound high-rent?

Apricot — I wouldn’t care if I didn’t have an apricot tree in my backyard and if I did not, every year, have a friend ask if she can come over to pick “APE-ricots.”

Err — Traditionalists say it rhymes with “spur.” But no one knows that, so everyone pronounces it “air.” That’s why the dictionary allows both. Still, I’m not comfortable saying it either way.

Niche — The preferred pronunciation rhymes with “itch.” But, sorry, Webster’s, I like “neesh.” So I wish you’d stop making me feel bad about it.

Caribbean — This one is only a problem when it follows “Pirates of.” In every other usage, it’s cuh-RIB-be-an, but when Disney’s involved, it’s care-ib-BEE-an.

Forte — I once read a rather obnoxious installment of the obnoxious comic strip “Mallard Fillmore” in which the author demanded it’s pronounced “fort.” And my Webster’s agrees. But, come on. If you say, “Accounting is not my fort,” it’s almost guaranteed you’ll elicit the quip, “And English is not your garrison.” Seems to me that "for-tay" is the new "forte."

Casagrande — Yeah, I know. I’m working on it.

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Joel said...

Is there any domain more fraught with the perils (forgive me if that's one of those combinations) of insecurity on the one hand and pretense on the other?

What I hate is when someone I respect too much prefers a pronunciation that I am otherwise sure is ostentatious but that there beatific countenance has imbued not only with a glowing righteousness but with the hint of a secret wisdom. I want to please--yea, impress--them and, yeah, I'm convinced they must know something I don't (and I hate showing my ignorance). But I sound so damned phony when I say it their way. So, of course, I mumble through it so that no one is quite sure what I said.

I had a teacher and adviser who used to say "au-GUS-tin" for Augustine and it f***ed me up good for a very long time, because Augustine is kind of a big deal if you're a Christian thinker in the Western tradition and there we were at a Christian liberal arts college doing the idea thing. My speech coach in college said "err" the traditional way. I probably have a ton of these, each attached to some person, whom, like I said, I revered more than I should have.

And then there are the folks (a tribe of the Grammar Snobs fer shur) who are convinced that if you don't pronounce it like they do you're some kind of hayseed. My heroes generally weren't and aren't that way; I've just always feared that they were.

On that note, please don't judge me that my "niche" rhymes with "itch" and my "forte" has an "ay" at the end.

I love your description of the pronunciations of "pecan." I was worried until I read the second half. Spot on, as they say. Now I'm curious what your take is on "PEE-can." BTW, I'm low rent all the way on that one--and in general, come to think of it. But "PEE-can," well, I wanna say "that sounds inbred," but I'm afraid that might be uncouth or that someone might be attached to it and take me too seriously.

Actually, one of the best things I heard at school was a teacher (and another adviser and mentor; I needed lots of them) who assured us at least that it was okay to brutally anglicize foreign adoptions--that we shouldn't feel the need to contort ourselves into pronouncing words precisely as they would be in their native tongue (I think we've discussed the Jimmy Smits SNL skit here). Come to think of it, that sounds almost xenophobic. I assure you, he isn't. That was my phrasing, "brutally anglicize." I'm prone to verbal violence.

June Casagrande said...

PEE-can is just good clean fun. Reminds me of one of my favorite things to say, TEE-vee. As in, I was watchin' the TEE-vee.

Yeah, I never know what to do when someone pronounces something a non-June way and then, in the same conversation, I have to use the word. Whatever you pick, you're either kissing A or coming off like a total B. There's no good way to deal with those -- the best possibility being your mumble strategy.

And regarding use of the word "inbred," it's a strict policy on my blog to prohibit any language that might offend Dalmatians. (Also why you'll never hear me say someone's logic is "spotty" or "where's the fire"? No dalmaphobia allowed here.)

Linnee said...

I'd never really thought of Disney's influence on the pronunciation
care-ib-BEE-an before. Good call! When my daughter was little, she called the ride "The Carrots of the Bean."

June Casagrande said...

Ah, good old Disney and their influence.

In the ride, animatronic drunken criminals chase women while "A Pirate's Life for Me" plays merrily in the background.

What a bizarre act to sanitize for a children's ride.

Janet S. said...

"Pe-CAHN" is widespread throughout the South, where pecans actually grow and are made into pies. Even people who otherwise sound totally low-rent say "pe-CAHN" in the South. One told me "A PEE-can is what you take on a long car trip if you don't want to make stops."

June Casagrande said...

I'm from Florida. We had to look up to the South. Literally. It ate us alive. So Floridians tend to reject all things Southern. We thought of ourselves as really warm New Yorkers. Though none of us was above enjoying lots of those Southerners' "pee-CAN" pie.

I'll even cop to having eaten mincemeat.

Adrian Morgan said...

I was on holiday last week and am now catching up with what's been happening on blogs while I was away.

As for pronunciations, hey, I'm Australian and therefore not supposed to know that "Caribbean" isn't always pronounced "ca-rib-BEE-an" (as, indeed, I didn't). International treaties require that I forget this as soon as possible after I finish reading your blog.

Everyone I know pronounces "niche" as "neesh" and "forte" as "FOR-tay". I only hear about other pronunciations via Internet pedants, or people on the Internet talking about pedants.

Likewise, the only pronunciation of "err" that I'm familiar with is the one that rhymes with "spur". I've never heard of anyone pronuncing it like "air" before. As for "apricot", I don't understand your dilemma. Unless I'm mistaken, "APE-ricot" is the only way it's ever said.

"Pecan" is one of those words that's so rare I rarely if ever hear spoken. But when I read it, I pronounce it in my head to rhyme with "beacon", i.e. PEE-can. It hadn't occured to me that there might be another way to pronounce it.

June Casagrande said...

With the exception of one dude who was correcting others, I've never heard anyone make "err" rhyme with spur. They all say "air." All the more reason to shy away from it altogether.

How funny that you don't hear "pecan" much. At my middle school in Florida, there were a couple of pecan trees right in front and my sister and I would stuff our pockets with them. Delicious. But I'm afraid the best way to explain the pronunciation also falls way outside your geographical area. Still, it may ring a bell. Picture a diverse-looking crowd chanting, "Yes, pe-can! Yes, pe-can!"

LL Blackwell said...

Ooh, maybe this is cuz I'm a native La-la Lander, but it's definitely pe-CAHN and APE-ricot. Sorry.

A speech teacher in college pointed out that it's really "fort" because "forte" is from French. However, I am 1) Italian and 2) something of a musician, so I've been using the Italian pronunciation my whole life. Take that language xenophobia!

So, how do you say Casagrande? Again, with the native La-la Lander (which I actually saw in print the other day! How does that go for justifying a word I thought I made up?), Spanish doesn't bother me, except when people don't say it right. Villa (except for the street in Pasadena, dunno why I'm biased) is pronounced VEE-ya--wait. Therefore, you (in my head) are cah"-sa-grahn'-day

June Casagrande said...

Ah! APE-ricot must be a West Coast thing.

I remember a French teacher in college saying that French people found it funny that we would park a car on the street and stick in the window a sign that says "For Sale," which to the French ear sounds like "very dirty."

But because of Fort Lauderdale and all those forts we learn about in history, my ear figures we need to pronounce that extra syllable to distinguish "for-tay" from "Fort Ticonderoga.

My mother, whose name was Johnson, would refer to my father as "Cass-a-GRAND-ee." My sister went through a period of making it sound like she was being interviewed for country club admission, "CAAH-sah-GRAHN-day." My father would sort of fudge it: "Cass-a-grand-uh."

Either way I say it, it seems either pompous or gutter-snipey.

I moved to L.A. right in the midst of all that Pete Wilson anti-immigrant stuff. One of my first impressions of the place was that a lot of Angeleno pronunciations were white people's attempts to distance themselves from Latin heritage. The pronunciations of "Los Feliz" and "San Pedro" seemed to me sort of deliberate re-appropriation of the town.

Of course, I moved here from Miami.

LL Blackwell said...

You're right about the Los Feliz and San Pedro thing. Those bug me, but no one would know what I'm talking about if I said it right.

My neck of the woods had a lot of "calles" in it, and pretty much everyone there did those "ll's" justice.

And yeah, pronouncing forte the French way just gets it confused with all the other forts out there. Go two syllables!

June Casagrande said...

Huh! I don't think I've heard of a street with "calle" in the name since I moved from Miami. Calle Ocho is the center of a lot of Cuban culture there. Fond memories. Unlike "Las FEEL-izz."

: )

Adrian Morgan said...

You haven't told us how else one might pronounce "apricot", and I'm genuinely puzzled!

As for pecans, as we speak I am eating one of these. Yeah, I know it's almost 2:30 in the morning in Australia; so what?

June Casagrande said...

Ah, you must be at one of those Australian all-night pecan-cereal-bar-eating raves we hear so much about. A little Moby, some strobe lights, and a whole lot of granola. Rockin'.

I say "APP-ricot." First syllable rhymes with "cap." It's probably a bad choice. But I'm too old to change my ways.

Joel said...

This is interesting, and head-spinning. Somehow it reminds me of the Steve Martin bit, "may I mambo dogface to the banana patch?"

In any case, I am hereby emboldened to be significantly less timid in my pronunciation of words that others get snobby about.

June Casagrande said...

How funny! Ted always uses that Steve Martin line, but in his memory it's "make a brownface in the banana patch." I should Google it, but I kind of like leaving both possibilities open.


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