You may or may not know that the verb atone comes from the phrase at one (it originally meant ‘to be reconciled’); now that you do (if you didn’t before), it may strike you as strange that the “one” part is pronounced so differently from the number. Well, that’s the “correct” pronunciation; the one for the number has undergone a dialectal shift that also produced /wət/ for oat, although the latter has stayed dialectal. And the OED says: “The orthoepist C. Cooper (Grammatica (1685)) draws attention to the latter development when he describes the pronunciations wun for ‘one’ and wuts for ‘oats’ as ‘barbarous speaking.’” So there you have it: those who dutifully obey the dicta of modern orthoepists of the Safire variety should immediately cease using the barbarous pronunciation that has so unfortunately overtaken the word one. What matter if no one understands you? A small price to pay for knowing your usage is unimpeachable!


  1. There is, regrettable to say, an upside to that approach; you’d be doing your bit for the sanity of English orthography. One of the few things practically possible in that direction, too, what with the unlikelihood of an Ataturk or a Lenin coming into power in all the English-speaking world at once.
    By the way, have you experimented with anything like Stefan Geen’s confirmation technique against comment spam? His blogs seem much less suspect to it than yours, though that may be because you get much more traffic :-) .

  2. Richard Hershberger says:

    Safire, for all his failings as a language commentator, doesn’t generally harp on pronunciation. For that can we turn to Charles Harrington Elster, if we can stomach a writer who characterizes anything other than his parochial prejudices as ‘beastly’.

  3. True, it was unfair of me to use Safire as my exemplum in this case, but his was the name that came to mind.

  4. Folquerto says:

    “Beastly”? For anything other than his parochial prejudices? How delightfully funny!

  5. I always thought that the “at one” origin of “atonement” was a canard invented and repeated by preachers and Sunday school teachers. It sounded more like a mnemonic to me, or like one of those acronym explanations like POSH. This post got me to check it out and apparently it’s true — in fact it is apparently “almost the only theological term of English origin ” (as opposed to Greek, Latin or Hebrew). Quote and thorough (R. Catholic) treatment here:

  6. A lot of speakers on British radio now pronounce one as “wan” (as pale faced, or Obi-Wan), rather than “won” (victorious)which I have always thought was the correct form.

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