Every once in a while a word will gain traction in the press, and reporters, pundits, and other authoritative voices will say it over and over again until it becomes embedded in the public’s consciousness. Occasionally the word that bursts to the forefront of our attention is one that I’ve used, or at least heard others use, in casual conversation for years, the only difference being that now the word is pronounced completely differently. As someone who cares about language and tries to use it properly, both in writing and in speech, I’ve grown increasingly concerned by the realization that I could be blithely mispronouncing hundreds of words and won’t be aware of my misdeeds until the media expose me once again by the new big news.
It all started in the early nineties during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings and the coinciding Anita Hill sexual harassment scandal. For the first 24 years of my life I had thought that the word was pronounced
huh-RASS-munt, only to discover that everyone in the media had decided, seemingly on a whim, to start calling it
The most recent example of the media turning the pronunciation tables on me came with the fighting between Israel and Lebanon. I had the mistaken impression that the Islamic group was pronounced
HEZ-bull-uh, but I had to drive that one out of my mind and start referring to the
freedom fighters terrorist organization as
now pronounced KOT-er
Another Middle Eastern pronunciation shift was the country Qatar — previously
kuh-TAR, but now
KOT-er, as in “Welcome Back…” (note: you probably need to be at least 35 years old to understand that joke). And don’t even get me started on Al Qaeda, which changes pronunciation about as often as my daughter Lucy changes her clothes (about four or five times a day).
I’m not sure when it happened, but the African country
NI-jur turned into
nee-ZHAIR and anyone wishing to pay tribute no longer gives an
AH-muj but an
oh-MOZH. I just can’t keep up.