Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Ranking usage

Casey has asked an interesting question in a comment to the previous post. He's afraid to used the word forte because he learned that it's pronounced just like fort. (Unless you're speaking of volume in music, that is. The opposite of piano is indeed pronounced 'fortay'.)

So what do you do when you know Group.1 thinks that pronunciation A is ignorant and Group.2 thinks that pronunciation B is ignorant and Group.3 knows the debate but thinks that you're only choosing pronunciation B because you're pretentious?

Bryan Garner in his Dictionary of Modern American Usage identifies this paradox as a skunked term: a linguistic lose-lose situation as Casey calls it.

In this article at his former roost, Ben Zimmer mentions a few other terms that have been skunked to varying degrees of rankness. Enormity is torn between enormousness and horribleness. Fulsome has one foot in the abundant camp and the other in the grotesquely abundant camp. Some people will shy away from hopefully in any use (both as it is hoped and in a hopeful manner) because they know there are some who jump on the word indiscriminately. There are those who believe nauseous should only be used as a synonym for noxious while others say it's fine to use it like nauseated or feeling sick.

Step forward confidently and use your word brazenly. Because there are plenty of people in Group.4: those who know the debates and are willing to assume to that no matter which pronunciation you've chosen it's in good faith.

I'll stop my list and let you contribute any answers to Casey's question. Are there others?


  1. Yes, it's such an interesting question. I prefer "gauntlet" to "gantlet" ("gantlope" having been so mangled upon adoption that it seems pointless to sweat the small spelling stuff). Have just about conceded to for-tay, on the grounds that in French it would be "fort," no e, no pronounced t, so it's too late for purism.

    And of course the conflict was memorably embodied in Gertrude Johnson, the Mary McCarthy character in Randall Jarrell's "Pictures from an Institution":

    "All power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, Gertrude was fond of quoting -- though she, of course, quoted it correctly and said 'tends to corrupt.' (And she always said 'to paint the lily': she knew that this was a commonplace phrase and that the memory of mankind had transfigured it, and she was contemptuous of people who said 'to paint the lily' -- just as she was contemptuous, in a different way, of people who said 'to gild the lily' -- but she couldn't bear to have anyone think that she didn't know which one it really was.)"

  2. Seems to me Zimmer's skunked words are all about meaning, while forte is about pronunciation. Are they the same thing?

    Also, Casey, people are more forgiving (I think) of mispronunciations than they are of misuses.

    Plus, if someone corrects you to fort, ask 'em what the e is doing there if it's really French. They usually have no idea.

  3. Now you see what happens, kids, when you can't get along? I'm going to take the word away and now nobody gets to use it, got it? Remember next time that it takes just a few people to ruin it for everyone.

  4. Do you remember this post Casey?

    That's a wonderful passage Jan. A lovely painting of a performance of Casey's very fear.

    I think there is probably a more shrill cry on semantic changes than on pronunciation. I'm trying to come up with a unifying theory for that. Many sociolinguists of course have their analyses of it but i'm trying to come up with a structural approach.

    but i think the fear of being judged is about the same when we realize that any form is debated and we have to choose between an acquired form and a learned one.

    when someone corrects you just smile and say "i know" and continue. make sure you say it again the same way and give them a kind wink when you do.


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