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"I love words, but I don’t like thwart.
It’s ugly, like a hairy wart.
And isthmus I can do without.
It irritates my lips and snout.
I never cared a whit for sphere.
It curls my lips and makes me sneer."
(I don’t like to say sphincter either, but I couldn’t fit it into my rhyme.)

~

As one who loves words, I own several dictionaries, and I think I have a decent vocabulary. I “know” a lot of words until someone asks me what they mean, and I “know” a good many words that I wouldn’t know how to use in conversation. I also know a few words that I never use in everyday speech, not because they are big words or unusual words or even hard to pronounce. I encounter them regularly in print, but I rarely hear them and I never say them. They include nonplussed, vouchsafe, gainsay, indefatigable, inasmuch as, pusillanimous, and a slew of others. I don’t know why I avoid them.

And then there are words rarely used except in their negative form. Anu Garg, in his first book, A Word a Day (John Wiley & Sons, 2003), lists a few positive forms that are “completely scrutable” and “licit.” He suggests we use these words in our writing “for a gainly touch, a couth appearance.” He expresses the hope that we will feel “gruntled with these words.”

I thought of a few more words we could use in their positive forms, and maybe they will gruntle you. Not all of these are licit, but I hope most of them are sipid. I am at the moment kempt and sheveled, and my workspace is sightly, but I am certainly pervious to criticism. Although I love the language and try to use it eptly, I admit that my usage is often peccable. I am also a bit trepid when it comes to abusing the mother tongue. That may be why I own so many dictionaries and other books about words.

One of my favorites is Charles Harrington Elster’s The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations (HoughtonMifflin, 1999). Elster’s introduction offers this: “Pronunciation, like life, is governed by repetition, but rife with ambiguity, passion, and caprice; it is forever vulnerable to change and open to interpretation.” 

This book is one man’s opinion, based on a variety of reputable sources, about the pronunciation of a number of problematic words. Here are a few that I often hear mispronounced:

  • Long-lived: It rhymes with arrive, although a few “authorities” say the "i" in the word should be pronounced like the "i" in livid.
  • Mischievous: Please don’t say mis-CHEE-vious. It’s only three syllables, with the stress on the first, MIS-chi-vus.
  • Cache: It’s just like cash. Not ka-SHAY, as I recently heard a TV reporter pronounce it.
  • Cachet: Okay, go ahead and say ka-SHAY for this one, if you ever have occasion to use it.
  • Forte: It’s pronounced fort. (For-TAY is wrong, but chances are if you pronounce it correctly, some clod will tell you it should be for-TAY. I have even heard etagere pronounced etazh-u-RAY and concierge pronounced consee-ur-ZHAY. Don’t do it.)

Ah, but if enough Americans want to keep mispronouncing these words, then the mispronunciation becomes the “right” way. Just as dour (rhymed with hour, or sour) is now acceptable. Only a few years ago the correct pronunciation rhymed with poor. Many people who read Elster’s book would say, “Oh yeah? Sez who?”

We do with our mother tongue just about whatever we want to. That’s the fun of American English, “rife with ambiguity, passion, and caprice.

Nadine Smith

A native of Oklahoma, Nadine Smith holds a master’s degree in adult education from Arizona State University.

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