What you sometimes hear from broadcast journalists makes you think they could use a compendium of commonly misheard and mispronounced words. Of course, the hazard is greatest when those reporters are live instead of scripted and must therefore depend upon their own language skills.
Some recent on-air gaffes: “for all intensive purposes” instead of “for all intents and purposes.” “A blessing in the skies” instead of “a blessing in disguise.” “Card shark” instead of “cardsharp.” “Pass the mustard” instead of “pass muster.” “Chomp at the bit” instead of “champ at the bit.”
The last two errors are widespread enough to merit discussion. To muster means to gather, summon, assemble — as in gathering one’s strength or assembling the troops (for inspection, say). This latter sense gave rise to the expression “pass muster,” which means to measure up, be acceptable. It has nothing to do with passing the mustard.
“Champing at the bit” is an elegant, centuries-old expression that refers to horses chewing vigorously and impatiently at the bits in their mouths. Every dictionary I consulted mentioned the element of impatience and readiness. Consider this passage from Lord Byron’s wonderful “Siege of Corinth”:
The steeds are all bridled, and snort to the rein;
Curved is each neck, and flowing each mane;
White is the foam of their champ on the bit:
The spears are uplifted; the matches are lit …
“Chomp,” meaning to bite or chew, is a crude and less literate substitute. The 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary identifies “chomp” as U.S. dialect.
Of course, the reporters are saying what they think they’ve heard. But misuse of common expressions is still a gauge of what we don’t know about the language. Interestingly, lifelong readers seldom make these kinds of mistakes. Chances are they’ve seen such idioms on the printed page, so they would never say, as a television reporter did, “doggy dog world” instead of “dog-eat-dog world.”
Saying things right matters to all of us. But using preferred or standard pronunciation is of special concern to broadcast journalists because how they say things can make them more or less credible to their listeners. A radio reporter pronounced Caribbean differently each time he said it — sometimes CariBEEan and sometimes CaRIBean. (Most dictionaries prefer CariBEEan.) The same reporter later pronounced envelope differently in the same sentence — as both ENvelope and AHNvelope. (ENvelope is the preferred pronunciation.) And a TV newscaster repeatedly read the word remunerate as “renumerate” — a meaningless coinage.
So back to that compendium of commonly mispronounced words. Here’s a modest one. These pronunciations represent a consensus of popular dictionaries — Webster’s New World, Webster’s College, American Heritage and Random House College — with the august OED as arbiter.
We don’t even need a dictionary, however, to discuss some of the most annoying mispronunciations. All we need do is look at the words. Consider the pronunciations “nucular” instead of nuclear, “realator” instead of REALtor, “athalete” instead of ATHlete, “jewlery” instead of JEWELry, “dialate” instead of DIlate, and “triathalon” instead of triATHlon. The problem is the same in each case: spare syllables.
Mischievous is mispronounced “mischieveeous” instead of MISchievous. Heinous, grievous and intravenous become “heineeous,” “grieveeous” and “intraveneeous.”
Letters are transposed in irrelevant, which is mispronounced “irrevelant.” Liaison is correctly pronounced “lee-AY-zahn.” But many speakers skip the first syllable, add a new one and mispronounce it “LAY-uh-zahn.” The same kind of word myopia exists when we hear “asterik” instead of asterisk, or “axe” instead of ask.
We confuse the French forte,which means an area of strength and is pronounced “fort,” with the Italian forte, which means loud, as in a musical passage, and is pronounced “forTAY.”
Speaking of Italy: The I is short. So it’s Italian, not “EYEtalian.” Same thing with Iraq and Iran — “EYEraq” and “EYEran” are gross mispronunciations.
Dictionaries agree that the first syllables of harass and harassment are emphasized: HARass, not “harASS.” The preferred pronunciation of extraordinary is “exTRORDinary,” not “extra-ordinary.” The preferred way to say interesting is “INtristing,” not “inneresting.” Flaccid is pronounced “FLAXid,” not “flassid.” It’s IMpotent, not imPOtent, height and not “heightH.” Bade and forbade are “bad,” not “bayed.” And accessory is “akSESSry,” not “aSESSry.”
It’s espresso, not “expresso.” For sheer irritation, that mispronunciation is right up there with “expecially,” “excetera” and “excape.”
When it comes to pronunciation, we can give lip service to William Safire’s “When enough of us are wrong, we’re right.” But as professional wordsmiths who want to keep our credibility with our audience, we must also do our best to deal in standard English — that is, the kind of English identified by experts as accepted and preferred.
NOTE: The author’s name is pronounced LaRock — not LaQueue, LaQuay, LaCrew, LaRogue, LaRoche, LaCrock or Larroquette.