Gene Weingarten: Poleeshing a pronounced problem

WASHINGTON — How do you say the name of that black candy?

Wrong.

It is not pronounced "lickerish." It is pronounced "lickoriss." If you are like most Americans, you have been mispronouncing it your whole life; worse, by so doing, you have been blindly perpetuating an error likely begun eons ago by children who have trouble saying "s." When you think about it, saying "lickerish" is no more justifiable, and no less infantile, than saying "pizghetti" or "hostipal" or "drownded."

If you doubt this, try to think of another word ending in "ice" that is pronounced "ish." We do not drive to the "offish" unless we are very, very drunk, in which case we might be arrested by the … poleesh?

Now, I know what you are going to say, so you needn't bother. You were going to smugly inform me that you have just consulted a dictionary and discovered that "lickerish" is, in fact, the first pronunciation offered. And this would be a dandy argument were it not for the fact that dictionaries have finally proved they no longer can be relied on to offer reasonable assessments of proper pronunciation. There's a vacuum of leadership in this area, one I am boldly stepping forward to fill today, with as much obnoxious pedantry as I can manage. You are most welcome.

As pronunciation guides, dictionaries have long been flirting with irrelevancy. That's because they have been bending over backward to accommodate public ignorance, legitimizing linguistic lassitude such as ignoring the "r" in February. Dictionary editors defend themselves by arguing that a language is a living, breathing thing, and must remain supple enough to reflect changes in common usage. And I agree! Change is good! As custodians of the language — the innkeepers of the venerable Hotel English — dictionary editors should be open and hospitable and unafraid to modernize … so long as they don't let barbarians trash the place.

"Feb-you-erry" was tolerable, if annoying. But what has happened recently is not tolerable and beyond annoying. Dictionaries have not only begun recognizing even more wince-inducing formulations, but of late they have been uttering these unutterable pronunciations aloud, via online audio links. So it is now possible, with just two clicks of a mouse, to access Merriam-Webster.com, and to hear the crystal-clear voice of an intelligent-sounding woman, speaking with authority in well-enunciated syllables, informing your impressionable children that it is just peachy to say … "liberry."

Also, "ek-setra."

Also, "ath-a-lete."

And not "sherbet," but the appallingly ignorant "sherbert," as in Herbert. Dictionary.com not only says aloud the idiot's coffee-bar order of "expresso" but actually offers that as an alternate spelling of the real word.

And finally, ironically, in what can only be seen as its ultimate abdication as a trusted authority, Merriam-Webster gives us, aloud, the following pronunciation:

"Pronounciation."

In short, the dictionary is dead to me — and, I hope, to you, too. It's okay. You have me.

So, listen up.

• It's "ma-choor," not "ma-toor." "Ma-toor" takes the sin of ignorance — we do not look at pictoors or have adventoors, and the Christ's second coming will not occur during raptoor — and compounds it with the sin of pomposity. People who say "ma-toor" think of themselves as more mature than the rest of us. I'll bet George Will says "matoor."

• It's "off-en," not "off-ten." Because I said so.

• Depot is "dee-po," not "deh-po."

• A tribute by example is an "oh-MAHZH," not "HOM-age," because occasionally, if rarely, the French know what they are doing. And therefore the word carries the article "an," not "a," despite what your local newspaper might print.

Do I have you convinced? Or are you going to stick stubbornly to, say, "lickerish"?

Well, if you do, here's a little asterisk (or, as Merriam-Webster permits, "asterik"). There actually is an archaic word pronounced "lickerish." It's actually spelled that way. By all means, keep blithely using it in the presence of your little children, if you wish. It means "horny."

Gene Weingarten can be reached at weingarten@washpost.com. Chat with him online at noon Tuesday at www.washingtonpost.com.

Gene Weingarten: Poleeshing a pronounced problem 11/27/10 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 1:24pm]

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