Dot Wordsworth

Mind Your Language | 20 November 2004

A Lexicographer writes

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BBC television is devoting a frenzied week to a children’s knockout spelling competition. Goodness knows, spelling needs attention, if Veronica’s vagaries are anything to go by. But even where words are spelt correctly, there is the difficulty of their pronunciation. ‘What about Julia?’ said my husband, trying to be ‘helpful’.

I couldn’t think there was much doubt about the name’s pronunciation, but it turned out that he was talking about Herrick’s poem, with its couplet, ‘Then, then (methinks) how sweetly flows/ That liquefaction of her clothes.’

The OED, 100 years ago, described that pronunciation of clothes, without sounding the th, as careless or vulgar. It admitted that in all English dialects (geographical, not social) clothes was pronounced like the verb close, and there can be little doubt that without the preservative power of the spelling, the normal pronunciation would omit the th.

A word where the spelling has been sneakily changed is Arctic. Everyone in England said artic and spelled it without the middle c until some pedants in the 17th century decided to make it look more classical by inserting the c. Certainly the word came from Latin arcticus, itself from the Greek arktikos, ‘of the bear’ (the constellation), but it came into English from Old French artique. And so the English omitted the intrusive c in speech even after the change of spelling, at least among those sufficiently well born not to worry or sufficiently lowly born not to know, until universal education and the influence of spelling reduced the resistance to a rump.

England being England, some spelling-pronunciations are noted by snobs as evidence of lower-class origins. Forehead should rhyme with horrid; handkerchief should have the last syllable as -if, not -eef. Medicine is often pronounced as three syllables by meanly born newsreaders.

Then there are words which hardly anyone pronounces in the ‘correct’ manner. Gibberish should be pronounced with a hard g, as should Gerontius in The Dream of Gerontius. Pejorative should be pronounced with the stress on the first syllable, like pea. Do you ever hear it so? Otiose should rhyme with atrocious, but those who use it often make it trisyllabic, like pantyhose.

Does anyone pronounce geyser with the first syllable rhyming with eye? They do in America, but probably because of the popularity of the water-heater in Britain the word is pronounced like the old geezer selling newspapers.

Perhaps when the BBC has finished its spelling bee it could hold a competition in reading aloud. I wonder how quickly its announcers would be knocked out.