April 07, 2020
Column

Butchering the English language

I have been gritting my teeth so much recently it’s a wonder I have any lower jaw left. The source of my teeth-gritting concerns mispronunciations and word misusage I keep encountering with television personnel and a plethora of writers. I’m not talking about regional mispronunciations, which I often find amusing; rather, it’s the butchered pronunciations I’m concerned with of the ought-to-know better class of people.

How long does it take for a TV broadcaster to learn the correct pronunciation of the word integral? It’s INta-gr’l, not INtra-g’l. And the word is NOOK-le-er, not NOOKLE-‘r.

I think our president must have been a child left behind when it comes to pronouncing that one.

And speaking of children left behind, childhood mispronunciations can be – and often are – so cute the family waits until it’s time for the child to enter school before correcting the pronunciation to avoid kindergarten teasing. This was true in our family.

As a toddler, for several years my nephew spoke of something being “upside-over” rather than upside-down. We loved it, so the correction didn’t come before kindergarten admission. My nephew is now 50 but, I assure you, he doesn’t say “upside-over” anymore.

Then there are ethnic mispronunciations that amuse rather than annoy me.

My late father, given his Irish background, never pronounced barrel as two syllables. Never. He always spoke of a barr’l of flour or barr’l of oil.

But INtra-g’l and Nookle-‘r send me into frenzies of rage. And we may as well forget the “n” in the middle of government, the hard “g” in strength, or the second “b” in probably. This, however, is only the tip of the mispronunciation iceberg.

Then there is the word misusage that also sends me ’round the bend. A case in point: Our president, a classic mispronouncer of words, was quoted in a speech of gratitude to his supporters who worked on his behalf in a South Carolina campaign: “… I’m very gracious and humbled.”

Gracious is not a word I associate with the 43rd president.

And so it goes.

Television has essentially done its share of mispronunciation and misusage damage, but so has printed content. In both cases, the damage is undeniable. I’m trying, as a retired English teacher, to live with it.

My all-time favorite misuse of a word involves, however, neither a world leader nor a TV broadcaster. It concerns a colleague of mine – then a teacher in a southern state – who was serving as stage technician for a high school production of “West Side Story.” His assistant stage manager was a sweet young girl and indefatigable backstage worker – I’ll call her Brandi – who, to put it kindly, was somewhat intellectually challenged.

The production, a smashing success, was acknowledged with thunderous applause and a standing ovation from the audience. As the curtain came down to mark the end of the performance, Brandi, jumping up and down, clapping her hands with excitement in the wings, remarked to my colleague: “Mr. Briggs, Mr. Briggs, look! We got a standing ovulation!”

Ralph Pettie is a retired teacher who lives in Blue Hill.


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