Monday, February 2, 2009

Words I'm Looking Up (One in an occasional cleverly named series on words I'm looking up)


NPR's Day to Day had a story this morning about widespread harassment of women in Cairo. The reporter pronounced it HAR-as-ment, inspiring me to (finally) get around to checking this:

Webster's New World College Dictionary says you can pronounce harass with the stress on the first or second syllable, but its first choice is HAR-as. Interestingly, for the noun form, it offers only one pronounciation: HAR-as-ment.

Merriam-Webster online allows both pronunciations for the verb and both pronunciations for the noun. But for both, M-W's first choice is to put the stress on the second syllable: ha-RAS, ha-RAS-ment.

American Heritage Dictionary takes the time to include a whole usage note about disputes on how to pronounce harass:

Educated usage appears to be evenly divided on the pronunciation of harass. In our 1987 survey 50 percent of the Usage Panel preferred stressing the first syllable, while 50 percent preferred stressing the second. Curiously, the Panelists' comments appear to indicate that each side regards itself as an embattled minority.

Ironically, after all that, it offers only one pronunciation for the noun: ha-RAS-ment.

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Joel said...

This is probably entirely emotional and bigoted, but accent on the first syllable sounds to me simultaneously unwholesome and snobbish. Which makes even less sense when I consider that that puts emphasis on the relatively innocuous "HAIR" instead of the much more suggestive "ASS." Oh well.

June Casagrande said...

Hmm. I never thought of that. But I guess that the HAR-as-ment pronunciation sounds more likely to be spoken with a British accent. So I see your point.

To me, HAR-as-ment just sounds weird. But it drives home how my sense of "right" is so powerfully governed by the question of which way I learned first.

Like "niche" and "forte," it's so hard to let go of the first way I learned something. (And, to be honest, in those cases I'm not. I'm too invested in neesh and fortay to start saying nitch and fort.)

They say this kind of mental inflexibility happens in the autumn years ....


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