The latest xkcd is a jolly and cleverly done parody of the Major-General’s Song from The Pirates of Penzance; the only thing that bothers me is that in the fourth panel from the end, the line “By dubbing econ ‘dismal science’ adherents exaggerate” uses an unacceptable (to me) distortion to cram the word adherents into the meter. That was my first reaction, anyway; it then occurred to me that this might be yet another linguistic evolution that had snuck up on me while I was looking the other way. It’s perfectly clear that it’s not a traditional pronunciation—Merriam-Webster has two, \ad-ˈhir-ənt\ (add-HERE-ənt) and \əd-ˈhir-ənt\ (əd-HERE-ənt), while the OED has four alternatives, all with penultimate stress (they add -HAIR- variants to M-W’s pair)—but maybe some people are starting to say ADD-herent, with initial stress, and Randall Munroe is one of them (and his poetic license will not have to be revoked). So: anybody out there say ADD-herent or find it an acceptable/normal alternative?


  1. Nah, I think he’s cheating.
    To me a little cheat like that would ordinarily be quickly excused (“poetic license”) and forgotten. But, paradoxically, given that he’s been so meticulous with the meter otherwise, I want to hold him to a higher standard.
    My other problem was that I kept expecting “to study history” to be the subject of a clause. I had to read that panel several times before I got it.

  2. It’s very much in the spirit of G&S themselves: cf. “You’ll say a better Major GenerAL has never SAT a gee.”

  3. “Acolytes” would work as a substitution.
    I think Zachary is right, though; slightly tortured scansion is consistent with the original model. Perhaps he’ll take it further in the stage version.

  4. I hesitated there too, and in fact I was too lazy to puzzle out that it was meant to be ADD-herent. I also had a problem with “OK” in the first panel of the fourth row. Looking back on it just now it took me a little while to realize I needed to put the stress on the ‘O’; especially in “that’s OK” my own stress is on the ‘K’.

  5. That’s wonderful, thanks. But are you not bothered by the comPARable/TERRible rhyme at the end? To me that’s a way more noticeable stretch than the initial stress on “adherent.” (I say COMP’r’bl myself, more or less.)

  6. That went right by me, Jan. Come to think of it, what would the author of “The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations” say about “comparable”? Though I never read the book, I recall that he maintained that PREParatory was wrong and prePARatory was right, and I find myself hoping (just because I enjoy absurdity) that his principle, whatever it was, would also insist on comPARable.

  7. I guess you people are pronouncing “science” with two syllables: sci-ence. If you pronounce “science” with one syllable, “adherents” comes out accented right but a syllable short, which can be dealt with by stretching the “her”.

  8. I’m with the purposely-tortured folks.

  9. Adam Trotter says

    I must agree with Zachary, that most the joy of G&S
    Is in their knack for reeling out verse fast and fun and free in stress.

  10. Martin Doonan says

    It’s intersting that OED doesn’t even have it: it seems my natural pronuciation falls halfway bewteen the ADD-herent and OEDs ad-HAIR-ent forms. I had no problem with the meter at all on reading yesterday.

  11. As Harold Ross used to say: “I know, I know, it’s poetic license — [E. B.] White has told me all about that. But I don’t think there should be a license, even in poetry, to get a thing wrong.”
    It’s clear that Munro is a merry/marry/Mary merge-er. For me, who keep all three separate, unbearable and repairable rhyme (SQUARE, Mary), but neither rhymes with terrible (DRESS with /r/ in the next syllable, merry), still less with comparable (TRAP with /r/ in the next syllable, marry). I can say comparable with initial stress (LOT=PALM) as Jan does, but it’s not as natural as the second-stressed version.
    But none of these nitpicks prevented me from singing the whole thing to myself this morning, twice!

  12. I love the first two illustrations in the xkcd, they’re as good as a Ros Chast cartoon.

  13. J.W. Brewer says

    hmm, my own intuitions are apparently out of date as google ngram viewer says that “repairable” has pulled ahead of “reparable” in the last few decades after shifting/see-sawing preferences in the prior century or two. However, both combined are sufficiently less common than “irreparable” as to bolster my intuition that it sounds like a weird backformation of the couth-from-uncouth pattern. (Although since “irreparable” is particularly common in my own professional jargon there may be some distortion coming from that.)

  14. J.W. Brewer says

    Oh and I see the xkcd guy doesn’t have anything negative to say about majoring in Classics, perhaps because this guy is so awesome.

  15. J.W. Brewer says

    Oh and I see the xkcd guy doesn’t have anything negative to say about majoring in Classics, perhaps because this guy is so awesome.

  16. Good old fashioned use of ‘prevaricate’ too.

  17. Ø, Elster (Mr. “Beastly Pronunciations”) insists on first-syllable stress for “comparable” and laments the appearance of “comPARable” in dictionaries beginning with M-W 10 (1998). He also says I’m wrong to reduce it to three syllables; he wants four, as in FORmidable. FWIW.

  18. I see. I had never actually looked at the book, and I had the erroneous idea that he had interesting if misguided rules for deciding what’s right or wrong. But I think wrong just means either (1) sounds beastly to him or (2) newer.

  19. Treesong says

    I’m an əd-HERE-ənt adherent but can say ADD-HERE-ent and read the line without trouble. The preVARicate/exAGGerate rhyme bothers me more. Not as much as repeating it/teaching it, though.
    And while I’m grumping: he misspelled ‘agoraphobiac’.
    None of which changes the fact that it’s a great parody with great illos.

  20. dearieme says

    If you needed to distinguish adhere from cohere, you’d put the stress on the distinguishing syllable, wouldn’t you?
    There must be COMP’r’bl examples.

  21. And while I’m grumping: he misspelled ‘agoraphobiac’.
    ‘ophidiophobic’, too, I see.

  22. On sober(er) reflection, I realize that this version of the MGS suffers from a problem that most other versions do too: it lacks the “turn” in the third verse, beginning at “In fact, when I know what is meant by mamelon and ravelin“. All three verses of Munroe’s version basically tell the same story. (Lehrer’s “Elements” has this problem too, but of course it never means to do anything else.)
    And that is what makes Kevin Wald’s Xena version so triumphant: it not only scans quite perfectly, but has the same turn at the same place: “In short, when I can tell you how I break the laws of gravity”. And if Wald finds it necessary to invent yonical, Gilbert found it equally necessary to invent parabolous.
    At the other extreme there is the singularitarian version: its couplets don’t rhyme, don’t scan, or both; there is no turn; and there are far too many syllables for the form (the most common fault in incompetent strict-form poetry, at least in English).

  23. J.W. Brewer says

    The XKCD thing had actually already dredged up in my mind a dim memory of the Kevin Wald thing that John Cowan just referenced. This is quite impressive given that I am neither a G&S buff nor a Xena buff, but I believe that Kevin Wald is brother or perhaps cousin to someone I knew in college and a mutual friend of myself and that other Wald must have drawn by attention to the composition back in the ’90’s.

  24. I’m a British East Midlander and I’ve never pronounced ‘adherent’ any other way than stressing the first syllable, with two schwas for the other two vowels. However, since it’s a word that one most often meets in written rather than spoken form I have no idea whether I’ve ever heard anyone else pronounce it!

  25. Nick: How do you pronounce “coherent” or “inherent”?

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