December 1, 2010
by Graham

Own Goal

I’ve just bought a second-hand dictionary and thesaurus, which has a  contents list as follows:

“Abbreviations Used in this Book




Commonly Misspelt Words

Weights and Measures”

Strangely enough, “thesaurus” is not included in the list of Commonly Misspelt Words.

November 24, 2010
by Graham

Greek Names

Simon Armitage is a poet who is now presenting TV documentaries, particularly on what might be called ‘poetic’ subjects. I have recently watched one on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and now one tracing the journey of Ulysses through Homer’s Odyssey. I was surprised that he seemed to know so little about Greek pronunciation, or at least the traditional treatment of Greek names in English, especially as he has produced a verse translation of some of the Odyssey.

Names I spotted were Acheron /əˈkɛərɒn/, Charybdis /ʃəˈrɪbdɪs/, Ogygia /ɒʤɪˈʤɪə/ and a place I don’t recognise: /ˈʃerɪə/. Can anyone identify this one? If /k/ in Acheron, why not in Charybdis? I know that while chiropractor is always(?) /k-/, chiropody is often /ʃ-/, but still …

November 14, 2010
by Graham

audacious, visceral, burgeoning

Still watching TV programmes that I’ve previously recorded, I’ve just caught up with two episodes of the BBC series on the Pre-Raphaelites. One of the experts used in the programmes was Alison Smith, Curator at Tate Britain. She had two unusual pronunciations, one remarkable for not being consistent. She used the word audacious four times in the first of the series. On the first three occasions, her pronunciation was as one would expect: /ɔːˈdeɪʃəs/, but then the fourth time it came out as /aʊˈdeɪʃəs/. Can this have been a simple slip of the tongue? Her other unusual pronunciation was visceral, /ˈvɪskərəl/. This I put down to her having learned it as a written word, one she is not used to hearing pronounced.

The narrator of the series, the well-known actor Nigel Planer, had in his script the word burgeoning, and he chose to make the second consonant a fricative: /ˈbɜːʒənɪŋ/, rather than an affricate: /ˈbɜːʤənɪŋ/. I begin to wonder if the affricate /ʤ/ is losing ground in English except in initial position – so that only those few places where /ʤ/ and /ʒ/ make minimal pairs (such as leisure, ledger in British English) will manage to hold on to the /ʤ/.

November 7, 2010
by Graham

Brahms and Priestley

Music is often used to depict works of art in other disciplines – Debussy’s “Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune”, for instance, is a musical interpretation of a poem by Mallarmé; there are likewise many overtures or symphonic poems based on the plays of Shakespeare (Hamlet and Romeo & Juliet by Tchaikovsky, for example) and other writers. What is less common is a description of a musical work in words, other than in a technical analysis for specialists. Here is an extract from ‘Angel Pavement’, by J.B.Priestley:

“It was some time before he made much out of it. The Brahms of this symphony seemed a very gloomy, ponderous, rumbling sort of chap, who might now and then show a flash of temper or go in a corner and feel sorry for himself, but for the most part simply went on gloomily rumbling and grumbling. There were moments, however, when there came a sudden gush of melody, something infinitely tender swelling out of the strings or a ripple of laughter from the flutes and clarinets or a fine flare up by the whole orchestra, and for these moments Mr Smeeth waited, puzzled but excited, like a man catching a glimpse of some delectable strange valley through the swirling mists of a mountain side. As the symphony went on, he began to get the hang of it more and more, and these moments returned more frequently, until at last, in the final section, the great moment arrived and justified everything, the whole symphony concert.

“It began, this last part, with some muffled and doleful sounds from the brass instruments. He had heard some of those grim snatches of tune earlier on in the symphony, and now when they were repeated in this fashion they had a very queer effect on him, almost frightened him. It was as if all the workhouses and hospitals and cemeteries of North London had been flashed past his eyes. Those brass instruments didn’t think Smeeth had much of a chance. All the violins were sorry about it; they protested, they shook, they wept; but the horns and trumpets and trombones came back and blew them away. Then the whole orchestra became tumultuous, and one voice after another raised itself above the menacing din, cried in anger, cried in sorrow, and was lost again. There were queer little intervals, during one of which only the strings played, and they twanged and plucked instead of using their bows, and the twanging and plucking, quite soft and slow at first, got louder and faster until it seemed as if there was danger everywhere. Then, just when it seemed as if something was going to burst, the twanging and plucking was over, and the great mournful sounds came reeling out again, like doomed giants. After that the whole thing seemed to be slithering into hopelessness, as if Brahms had got stuck in a bog and the light was going. But then the great moment arrived. Brahms jumped clean out of his bog, set his foot on the hard road, and swept the orchestra and the fierce man and the three foreigners and Mr Smeeth and the whole Queen’s Hall along with him, in a noble stride. This was a great tune. Ta tum ta ta tum tum, ta tum ta-ta tum ta tum. He could have shouted at the splendour of it. The strings in a rich deep unison sweeping on, and you were ten feet high and had a thousand years to live. But in a minute or two it had gone, this glory of sound, and there was muddle and gloom, a sudden sweetness of violins, then harsh voices from the brass. Mr Smeeth had given it up, when back it came again, swelling his heart until it nearly choked him, and then it was lost once more and everything began to be put in its place and settled, abruptly, fiercely, as if old Brahms had made up his mind to stand no nonsense from anybody or anything under the sun. There, there, there there, There. It was done.”

It helps, of course, if you already know Brahms’ First Symphony when you read this, but I find it a very clear description of the progress of the piece from beginning to end.

October 30, 2010
by Graham

prenuptial mortgagors

I’ve written before about the pronunciation of nuptial and haven’t got much to add, except that a couple of weeks ago, the word was much in the news when the British courts were asked to decide on the legality of a pre-nuptial agreement.

Not a single person I heard use the word, on radio or TV, whether journalist, presenter or interviewee, used any pronunciation other than /ˈnʌptʃəl/. This is given as the second pronunciation in all the current pronunciation dictionaries. Is it time to promote it to first place?

Further to my post on antagonist pronounced /ænˈtædʒənɪst/, which Jack Windsor Lewis so ably expanded here, there is one word where the letter sequence -go- is invariably pronounced with /dʒ/ rather than /g/: mortgagor. The alternative spelling mortgager has been used sporadically since the 17th century, and there is also mor(t)gageour from earlier centuries, but it is odd that -or, rather than -er, has prevailed as the standard spelling when this results in so clear a contradiction to the normal representation of /dʒ/.

October 24, 2010
by Graham


Sportsmen – and I suppose sportswomen as well – are often given nicknames by their team mates. For instance, Andrew Flintoff became “Freddy” because of the similarity of his surname to “Flintstone”. The most unimaginative of these is simply to add ‘-y’ at the end of the name, as in Jimmy Greaves becoming “Greavesy’ (“Saint and Greavesy”, “Saint” being Ian St. John, were a double act of TV football pundits).

It’s interesting, therefore, that when you get a footballer whose name actually ends in ‘-y’ (and is pronounced /-i/), the nickname involves removing that syllable. Rooney becomes “Roo”.

October 18, 2010
by Graham


In last week’s In Our Time, (Radio 4, Thursday 14 October) one of Melvyn Bragg’s guests was Tim Blanning, Emeritus Professor of Modern European History at Cambridge University The discussion was about the Sturm und Drang movement in 18th Century Germany.

In the course of the programme, Professor Blanning used the word protagonists, but he pronounced it /prəˈtædʒənɪsts/. I wonder if he also says /ænˈtædʒənaɪz/ and /ænˈtædʒənɪst/. This is a pronunciation not given by any of the current pronunciation dictionaries, but I wonder if, being an eminent scholar, he is setting a trend for the future?

October 4, 2010
by Graham

A Quotation from Eric Partridge

I’ve been reading “The World of Words” by Eric Partridge (published by Routledge, 1938). In Chapter 2, entitled “The English Language” – chapter 3 is “The American Language” – he draws largely on Otto Jespersen’s Growth and Structure of the English Language, quoting often, and sometimes not acknowledging the source directly. On page 68, we find the following paragraph:

The Puritans influenced the language by causing a diminution both of swearing as a habit and of the number of oaths: whence Law (or Lawks) for Lord, drat it, and goodness gracious. ‘The English swear less than other European nations and … when they do swear the expressions are more innocent than elsewhere.’ Thus it is to the Puritans, or rather to their lingering influence, that we owe a certain number of English euphemisms – mild words for strong words. Why, it is even customary to speak of oaths as expletives or profane language! ‘Where a French or German or Scandinavian lady will express surprise or a little fright by exclaiming (My) God!, an Englishwoman will say Dear me! or Oh my! or Good gracious!‘ Euphemism reached its height of prudery and ludicrousness in the period 1840-70, when, in England, trousers were called by many comic names of the unmentionables kind and, in America, the ladies spoke of the limbs of a piano. ‘Prudery is an exaggeration, but purity is a virtue, and there can be no doubt that the speech of the average Englishman is less tainted with indecencies … than that of the average Continental.’

Can this be true? I know that when I was a student working in a factory, the men would not swear in front of the women, although the women were as hard-swearing as the men amongst themselves. What sort of people did Jespersen (and Partridge, for that matter) mix with? Perhaps language was milder in in the 1930s, or perhaps Jespersen, as a foreigner, was spoken to rather deferentially by the ‘natives’. Whatever, I cannot believe that the position is still the same today. If it is, then the profanity of ‘Continentals’ must be something quite amazing.

September 28, 2010
by Graham
1 Comment

Athenaeum – pronunciation and plural

Dr Jonathan Foyle, presenting a BBC 4 TV programme on the public buildings of the north of England, repeatedly pronounced the Athenaeum in Liverpool as /æθəˈneɪəm/, although his interviewees, members of the club, used the more anglicized /æθəˈniːəm/. I attributed this to a knowledge of Latin, but wondered whether he also pronounced aesthetic with /eɪ/, or treated stressed and unstressed occurrences of ae differently. Would he also pronounce Julius Caesar as /ˈseɪzə/? However, he then had to talk about other buildings with the same name being erected in other northern cities, and used a plural /æθəˈneɪaɪ/. Has my knowledge of Latin been totally lost, or should the Latin plural of Athenaeum not be Athenaea? And what is wrong with Athenaeums?  If I am right, then Dr Foyle’s pronunciation of the singular is not based on a true knowledge of Latin, but on a pseudo-knowledge which also demonstrates a shaky understanding of the usual development in English of the Latin ae.

September 18, 2010
by Graham

Prostrate and known

Catching up on some TV programmes recorded while I’ve been away, I’ve inevitably found some usages to comment on.

First a common confusion of two words, but this time in the less usual way: prostate and prostrate. It’s quite common to hear about men of a certain age having trouble with their ‘prostrate’ (does this mean they like lying down a lot?) For instance, my successor as manager of the Pronunciation Unit thought this was the word for the male gland. However, in a programme about Anglo-Saxon art, Dr Janina Ramirez of Oxford’s Department of Continuing Education described a piece in which Romulus and Remus were lying ‘prostate’ beneath the she-wolf. Is this hyper-correction, or a slip of the tongue, or simply confusion of the two terms?

Second an unusual pronunciation. Professor Robert Bartlett, of St Andrews University, regularly pronounces the word known in two syllables as /ˈnəʊən/. Presumably he pronounces unknown and grown in the same way. Is this a regular feature of particular accents, or an idiosyncrasy on his part? And how about flown (not the same, as the infinitive is flyflow gives flowed (perhaps he says /ˈfləʊəd/ for this.