It’s been a while since reading about a new book on language made the bile rise within me; I’ve been very pleased with the increasing number and quality of good books on the topic. But Megan Garber’s piece in the Atlantic on Ross and Kathryn Petras’s You’re Saying it Wrong: A Pronunciation Guide to the 150 Most Commonly Mispronounced Words and Their Tangled Histories of Misuse accomplished that feat quickly and efficiently:
[…] the 180-page volume—a bloggy compendium of those words, featuring brief etymologies along with their correct pronunciations—does tell me, quite usefully, that “timbre” is pronounced “TAM-ber,” not “TIM-ber.” And that it’s “spit and image,” rather than “spitting image.” And “chaise longue” rather than “chaise lounge.” And “MIS-chuh-vus” rather than “mis-CHEE-vee-us.”
I’m feeling the bile again just copy-and-pasting that heap of steaming dung. Nobody says or writes “spit and image”; nobody except the kind of wretched pedant who would correct your “mispronunciation” of timbre or mischievous. (If you search on the phrase in Google Books, you get a bunch of usage guides.) And check out some of its “corrective pronunciations”:
You see the general approach: insist that English-speakers use an approximation of the pronunciation in the language the word was borrowed from, but get that pronunciation wrong enough to annoy anyone who actually knows the language. In Hungarian it’s BOO-daw-pesht (more or less), not “boo-da-PESHT”; in Arabic, it’s CUTter (with a really back C=Q), not “kuh-tahr.” And a lot of people are irritated, not impressed, by anglos pretending to give a Spanish twist to place names like Colombia and Nicaragua. And “YOOR-uh-nuss”? Seriously?
The only use for a book like this, the only possible excuse for its existence, would be if it confined itself to terms not found in dictionaries, like FOOD BRANDS (Fage: FAH-yay, Hoegaarden: HOO-gar-duhn) and FASHION DESIGNERS (Bulgari: BUHL-guh-ree, Givenchy: zhee-VON-she). But given their slovenly approach to other sorts of words, I don’t trust them on these, either. And check this out:
“In many cases,” they note, “so many people mispronounce a word that the new (originally wrong) pronunciation slowly becomes accepted … and sometimes even preferred.” They insist, though, that as that process takes place, there are clear lines between the correct and the incorrect. They note, in the book’s introduction, that 47 percent of Americans are “irritated” by mispronunciations and, as a result, correct their family and friends. In Britain, they add, “a whopping 41 percent go on the attack and stop a conversation to correct someone else.”
Clear lines, yes, that’s what this sort of peever always demands (and in the case of authors, claims to provide). Unfortunately, language is messy, people make different choices, and there are no “clear lines between the correct and the incorrect” — in almost all cases discussed in books like this, those terms are meaningless. And those statistics are clearly pulled out of the collective authorial ass. Please, people, if you want to know how a word is pronounced, look in a damn dictionary, and if there are two or more alternatives, feel free to use any or all. And shut the door in the face of anyone who shows up peddling crap like this.