Some Links.

1) A linguist walks into a bar. Gave me a chuckle. (Thanks, David!)

2) “20 Missouri Cities No One Knows How to Pronounce,” by Lindsay Toler. (Thanks, Bathrobe!)

3) “The Jargon Trap,” by David Tuller (from the NY Times’ Opinionator blog). Useful advice for specialists trying to write for the general public:

My colleague Rachel Morello-Frosch, a professor of environmental health sciences at Berkeley, says writing opinion pieces aimed at nonprofessionals forces her to sharpen her focus and think hard about what’s most important. “For a popular audience, you have to get to your point quickly,” she told me in an interview. “In academic writing, the ‘so what’ is usually buried under a lot of verbiage.” Researchers familiar with a particular discipline find great value in academic literature because they’re used to the format. But while the rigid structure and formal language of these peer-reviewed journal articles “are useful for the purpose they’re supposed to serve,” Dr. Morello-Frosch added, “that doesn’t make them well written or interesting to read.”

Tuller tells his students to “forget formal references” and abandon “the promiscuous use of acronyms.” (Thanks, Eric!)

4) “You Say Expresso, I Say Espresso,” by Ben Yagoda, points out that this much-peeved issue is more complicated than you might think:

Whatever the source of its appeal, expresso has had a long and not entirely disreputable history. The Oxford English Dictionary lists it as an acceptable variant. Between 1945 (date of the OED’s first citation) and 1960, it was permitted in The New York Times, with 43 uses compared with 122 for espresso. The paper noted in 1947 that “the Bazaar Francais has some new single-cup pots, one of the expresso style from Italy,” and in 1954, “Expresso coffee has been familiar in New York’s numerous Italian restaurants for many years.” The spelling was also widely used in Britain, especially in references to the coffee houses popular with the bohemian set in Soho. [...] Contrarians have pointed out that expresso is the norm in France, Portugal, and Spain.

5) John McIntyre, “mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper,” has a typically sensible and punchy piece taking issue with a “misguided (read: stupid)” article on lexicography by Michael Dirda:

Before we get to the lexicography, we might ask why Mr. Dirda thought we would be interested in his personal preferences in vocabulary. All of us, I imagine, have words we favor and words we avoid out of aesthetic preferences, but we don’t imagine that the public is keen to be let in on them.

We might also wonder why Mr. Dirda was so eager to fall into the newspaper cliche of The Awful Way Those Young People Talk. Journalists go in for this every few years, about the way The Young are butchering English, and their weird clothes and loud music and degenerate carnality. (For the last, read: having more sex than I am.) I suppose it’s one way to proclaim that one is no longer young, but why that would be of more interest to readers than one’s individual preferences in vocabulary escapes me.

He also seems not to understand the point of slang. Slang is being generated all the time, by different groups, The Young prominent among them. It starts out as a code, an in-group language, and it loses its appeal for the young as soon as older people like Mr. Dirda come to understand it. It’s ephemeral. Most of it fades away quickly, though a little will lodge in the language. Vaporing about it makes as much sense as throwing a hissy about the weather, which is equally changeable.

But we should be getting to the point, the point being that Mr. Dirda appears to be in the dark about what lexicographers are doing. [...]

Read the whole thing; McIntyre is always a delight.


  1. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    9. Lebanon
    This isn’t the Middle East. Over here, it’s “lebuhnun.”

    That looks (to the extent that I can understand American ways of indicating pronunciation) pretty much like the way I pronounce the country next to Syria. What’s the point being made?

  2. I (and I think most Americans) say “LEB-a-NON,” giving the final syllable a full vowel and strong secondary stress.

  3. 6. Spokane

    In Washington State, it’s Spo-can. Here in Missouri, it’s “Spoe-kane.”

    So isn’t Washington the one just making it up, while Misswevs is following standard spelling-to-pronunciation rules?

    5. Bolivar


    Thank you. That made me so much wiser …

  4. J. W. Brewer says:

    I believe that pronunciation of “Bolivar” (rhyming with “Oliver”) is also standard for Bolivar County in the Mississpippi Delta.

  5. “Contrarians have pointed out that expresso is the norm in France . . . .”

    But wouldn’t it be pronounced “espress” in everyday French speech?

  6. Just like most states, you could compile a similar list for New York, from Chili [ˈt͡ʃaɪlaɪ] and Groton [ˈgɹɑʔn̩] to the famous Nunda [ˈnuːndeɪ].

  7. I’ve always said /æ/ for New Madrid, town and fault.

  8. “A linguistics professor walks into a bar and asks for a martini.
    “Don’t you mean a martinus?” asks the bartender, who has heard this joke before.
    “No,” says the linguist. “When a word is borrowed into another language it takes on the inflectional patterns of the target language, rather than the source language.”

    Actually that’s not what’s going on in this case. In this case “martini” is just short for “martini cocktail’. It’s like ordering a “Danish”.

    “In Washington State, it’s Spo-can. Here in Missouri, it’s “Spoe-kane.”

    Close enough, either one. The city is named after a leader, or maybe the tribe he represented, named Spuqin, and the second vowel comes out all across that spectrum.

  9. Stefan Holm says:

    puhm duh TAHR, lebuh-nun, Bah-nuh, MY-luhn, ca-now-lou, Ne-VAY-dah, Ver-SAIL-s, Ball-i-ver

    Please, dear anglophones, don’t even think of a spelling reform of English! Your attempts to reproduce the spoken language is just a going from bad to worse. And especially, in the name of La Cinquième République and world peace, make those Missourians change their names of ‘Pomme de Terre’ and ‘Versailles’. Ver-SAIL-s – priceless! To us, the other GMCs it is German ‘wer’ (who) + English ‘sails’ – Change the name to ‘Who Sails’?

  10. you could compile a similar list for New York

    LH, September 11, 2007.

  11. Actually, a modest reform (not a revolution) of Inglish orthography wood help quite a bit, just by eliminating the irregularly spelled wurds. It wood make written Inglish about as hard as French: menny ways to spell sounds, but oenly a few sounds for each letter or 2- or 3-letter combination, typically just wun. In the scheme I’m using, which is called Regularised Inglish (RI) and was devised by the Swedish linguist Axel Wijk, vowels still hav long and short sounds, and in the variant that I use, th and s ar still ambiguous. RI is properly cross-accentual, preserving aul the distinctions made by every livving speaker, though with sum concessions to American vs. British spelling shibboleths like -or vs. -our.

  12. I learned to say espresso from Young Frankenstein.

  13. Thanks for the NY list. The one for Skaneatles surprised me (lifelong western NY resident) though it’s true that I haven’t actually spent much time around that lake — Wikipedia gives the /ˌskɪniˈætləs/ from the list as second alternative after the /ˌskæniˈætləs/ that I knew. I wonder if any others have changed since 1944.

  14. Stefan Holm says:

    On the other hand, John, one could ask whether the discrepancy between spoken and written language really is a problem? Do students in the English speaking world spell worse than they do in Finland (whose written language is considered very close to the spoken one)? I’m not so sure.

    I have a gut feeling that we read in a “photographic” way. When I make spelling errors on this list (‘seperate’ instead of ‘separate’) and read my own words I instantly notice that ‘something’ is out of order – even though I’m not a native! But I never react upon ‘color’ vs. colour’, maybe because my ‘photographic memory’ has registered them both plenty of times. (In this previous sentence I hesitated though and had to check whether to use ‘register’ or ‘registrate’, both of which I ‘visually’ know perfectly well but suddenly got a little dubious about semantically).

  15. ‘register’ or ‘registrate’, both of which I ‘visually’ know perfectly well

    Really? I don’t think I’ve ever seen “registrate.” The OED tells me it exists and has been used as recently as 1998 (M. Murray French Masters of Organ 16 “The organ at Saint Clotilde..inspires nearly all his works, and he is distressed when interpreters registrate them by whim”), but it must be vanishingly rare.

  16. The evidence is that they do, and that it takes much longer to become a fluent reader of L1 English than most other languages. Only anglophones would think of, and make popular, a competition in spelling difficult words. (French and Chinese have dictées, but that’s another thing.)

    The process you describe is that of fluent reading in any language, but the attempt to get L1 children to recognize English words directly by their shapes, without teaching any letter-to-sound correspondences, has been a miserable failure ever since it was first tried in the 1950s. English is not written like Chinese, and it’s absurd to ignore the substantial regularities that actually do exist. About 80% of all words are entirely regular, though the regularities are complex, and most of the rest have only one irregular vowel, like “word”. It’s true that an English teacher of reading has to throw up their hands and say “It’s just spelled that way” far more often than teachers of other languages, but not every single time.

    Note that although L1 and L2 learners have different problems to solve, their interests in reducing the number of irregularities are aligned. A learner, confronted for the first time with the written form kangaroo, can apply the existing correspondences to generate the phonemic shape /kæŋ(g)əru/; this is only one of the possibilities, but it is the most probable. The L1 student already knows the word in spoken form, and will thus be able to recognize it even before it is learned by shape. The L2 student (from a Latin-alphabet language, at least) can probably identify the word even without knowing its pronunciation, but needs that in order to be able to know how it is spoken in English.

    But when confronted with one for the first time, the L1 student will not know what word it is (perhaps mistaking it for own) and the L2 student will not know how to say it. These are Bad Things. (A friend of mine, with a command of written English superior to most native speakers, did not know for many years that triple is pronounced like tripple; the letter-to-sound correspondences dictate /traɪpəl/, and that’s what he said.) Worse, the irregularities are concentrated in the most common words, so they are encountered early and often. Unfortunately, the people in a position to influence the orthography (insofar as anyone is) are no longer learners, and don’t much care or even have a feeling of “I suffered and so should you” about it.

  17. A friend of mine, with a command of written English superior to most native speakers, did not know for many years that triple is pronounced like tripple; the letter-to-sound correspondences dictate /traɪpəl/, and that’s what he said.

    “Steak” (rhyme with “week”) was mine…

  18. Yeah, how were you to know that great, steak, break alone resisted the Great Vowel Shift transformation of ME [ɛː] > [iː], assimilating instead to the [eɪ] < ME [eː]? (Words like head, dread, stead underwent irregular shortening before the GVS.) Here’s Sam: Johnson on the first of them:

    “Sir,” said he, “what entitles Sheridan [this is Thomas, father of Richard Brinsley Sheridan the playwright; he had undertaken to write a pronunciation dictionary] to fix the pronunciation of English? He has, in the first place, the disadvantage of being an Irishman; and if he says he will fix it after the example of the best company, why, they differ among themselves. I remember an instance: when I published the Plan for my Dictionary, Lord Chesterfield told me that the word great should be pronounced so as to rhyme to state; and Sir William Yonge sent me word that it should be pronounced so as to rhyme to seat, and that none but an Irishman would pronounce it grait. Now here were two men of the highest rank, the one the best speaker in the House of Lords, the other the best speaker in the House of Commons, differing entirely.”

    As late as the 18th century, tea was still [teɪ], nowadays confined to older speakers in Ireland.

  19. And people who sing “Drill, Ye Tarriers, Drill.”

  20. Hat: There you see! ’Registrate’ were there somewhere in my visual memory. I started to learn English at the age of ten, so in 1998 that word during 37 years could have reached my eyes. Perhaps a cerebral association with words like ‘demonstrate’, ‘orchestrate’ or ‘registration’ made me unsure. I had already written ‘register’, when anxiety struck me: damn, don’t they say ‘registrate’?

    ajay and John: The word imagine I for the first time met in litterature (during my teen ages) and took for granted, that it was stressed on the first syllable, like ‘imitate’, immigrate or ‘immanent’. I lived in that illusion for maybe ten years until I actually heard it spoken.

    Still I believe that to some extent different parts of our brains are involved in spoken vs written language. I dare say that I read English, from newspaper articles to scientific papers, with practically no difficulties. I read German almost as easily. When it comes to writing there are at least minor problems (as illustrated in this thread) in English and even more problematic in German (very much due to a lifelong lack of practice – German is otherwise in many respects easier for Swedes than English).

    But when it comes to both listening and speaking it’s much, much harder. I can follow a TV-program in English (or German) – one about quantum mechanics easier than a soap opera with all its idiomatic expressions and slang. For an L1 speaker I suppose the opposite is valid.

    And speaking! I need a script or a few drinks to do that without involving an uncountable number of ‘uh’s. I never forget when I some 20 years ago at the amusement park here in Gothenburg were asked by two American girls where to find the roller coaster. I had never heard the word (but I know what an intermediate vector boson is). My mind started trying to figure out what is ‘rolling’ on the ‘coast’. Waves, I thought and showed them, ‘uh’-ing, to the fairground’s attraction called ‘Flume Ride’, where boats are going up- and downhill. I sincerely hope they enjoyed it.

    I think that in most languages (not only English) the young generation will have to learn spelling through reading. You can’t tell Swedish children the linguistic history behind the words själ, skäl and stjäl, (‘soul’, ‘reason’ and ‘steal’ respectively) being pronounced exactly the same, [xæ:l].

  21. “Drill, Ye Tarriers, Drill.”

    Including me: I learned it in fourth grade, and it’s playing in my head now.

    learn spelling through reading

    Indeed, and Regularized Inglish style reforms won’t help with that, but they would help with learning to read at all, which is a much more basic need.

  22. As for martinus, I heard from an eyewitness that Eric Hamp once utterly confused a Cambodian employee of Suze Orman’s father’s deli by ordering a pastramus (pronounced to rhyme with “famous”), and then explained, helpfully, that it was singular of ['pæs-trə-maɪ].

  23. A friend of mine, with a command of written English superior to most native speakers, did not know for many years that triple is pronounced like tripple; the letter-to-sound correspondences dictate /traɪpəl/, and that’s what he said.

    Just a few minutes ago I had a waitress in Miami, whose English seemed to be perfectly native in all other respects ask me for my “siñatur” on the credit card receipt, i.e. she pronounced the word the way an Italian would read it.

  24. Talking about L2 English mistakes… I’m in deep shock right now.

    I was looking through the Regularized English respelling examples on

    when I discovered that “jealous” is pronounced with the DRESS vowel, not the TRAP vowel. In this case, I guess it’s not really a spelling prununciation, so it must be contamination from my native Danish, which clearly has an /a/ phoneme.

    My stubborn mind thought that maybe there’s no distinction in this environment (after [dʒ] and before dark l), so I tried looking for dʒæl-dʒɛl minimal pairs, and the only case I could find was, well, “JAL” (the Japanese airline) and “gel”. So if native speakers pronounce these differently, I guess I have to admit defeat.

    Even if there is a difference, I would guess that it’s very subtle, which is why I never noticed, and nobody ever corrected me. But still it’s a shock, since the TRAP phoneme was so clear in my mind.

  25. I think there may be English-language dialects in which the distinction is marginal or lost. But I’m pretty sure I distinguish between jealous and jalopy.

  26. I think there may be English-language dialects in which the distinction is marginal or lost.

    As I understand it, current South Africa, early 20th century extreme RP and, not a native accent but maybe relatedly, English as spoken by Germans. But yeah, the rest of us have that distinction in that environment.

  27. jealous and jalopy

    I, as well as all the dictionaries I checked, have a schwa in the first syllable of jalopy; the stress falls on the second syllable. So no legitimate distinction there. I checked CAAPR, a list of words with RP and “GenAm” pronunciations, and found no words containing /dʒæl/ at all.

  28. For me, “jalousie” uses /dʒæl/.

  29. Registrate – not a synonym or variant of “register,” but a musical term meaning to select different combinations of stops for performance of a particular piece on a pipe organ.

  30. So jealousy-jalousie is a minimal pair.

    I don’t think I’ve been in this kind of shock since approx. 20 years ago when Kurt Cobain taught me how “bury” is pronounced by rhyming “buried” with “married” (which I believe is a perfect rime if you’re marry-merry-merged).

  31. Although some people do say “burr-y,” a minority but acceptable pronunciation.

  32. For me it is homonymous with berried ‘gathered berries’, but definitely does not rhyme with married, since my region of the U.S. keeps all of Mary, merry, marry distinct.

  33. David Marjanović says:

    As I understand it, current South Africa, early 20th century extreme RP and, not a native accent but maybe relatedly, English as spoken by Germans. But yeah, the rest of us have that distinction in that environment.

    I haven’t figured out which environments are concerned, but there are plenty of Americans who pronounce yes, for example, with a wide-open [æ].

  34. marie-lucie says:

    expresso is the norm in France, Portugal, and Spain.
    - But wouldn’t it be pronounced “espress” in everyday French speech?

    Being in France with my family when I read this, I took the opportunity to ask my sister about it, since in our youth the word was un express«. She said that I was correct about the past, but nowadays it is un espresso (with stress on the final o of course).

    I have a gut feeling that we read in a “photographic” way.

    I think that most fluent readers do that (and that was the idea being the “whole word” approach), but not everyone does, or keeps a clear “photo” in memory, which is probably why “poor spellers” seem to have to reinvent spellings every time they write.

  35. David Marjanović says:

    …Wait. South Africa? I thought they keep bad and bed apart as [bɛd] and [bed], respectively? I’m pretty sure the Southefrikens I’ve mét did thet.

  36. Contrarians have pointed out thatexpresso is the norm in France, Portugal, and Spain.

    Said contrarians are talking out of their hats (no offense to our esteemed host intended), at least insofar as Spanish is concerned. There are no double esses in Spanish.

    They are right, though, in that both of the most usual versions of the term (the naturalised café expreso and the Gallicising café exprés) have an ex in their spelling, which is the point Yagoda was making.


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