Epiphany Sunday found us drinking coffee: me, Daryl, Margot, and Jess. “I remember,” I said, “when I was growing up in Alberta, one reason we gave that the nativity couldn’t have happened there was that we could never get three wise men from the east.”
“I wonder,” Daryl offered, “whether that had any influence on Richard Gwyn when he title his book on Pierre Trudeau The Northern Magus.”
“The northern maggots?” Margot snorted. “May-gus, not mag-us!”
“Trust Margot to cry Fowles,” Jess said. I’m not certain that everyone at the table knew that The Magus was a book by John Fowles, but no further was made of it. Jess relaxed back to maximize her quality time with the mound of whipped cream on her beverage.
“That’s an interesting word, isn’t it, magus?” I said. “Much more commonly seen in the plural: magi. Or magi.” The first time, I said “may-jye”; the second, “madge-eye.” Naturally, Margot snorted at that. “Now, Mair-jo,” I said, deliberately riffing on her name, “I’m surprised that you don’t prefer ‘ma-goose’ and ‘magee,’ which are, after all, the Latin pronunciations.”
“I’ll toss this one back to you,” she said. “You’re the one who likes to point out that these words are now English words. So it’s been in the language long enough for the vowels to have shifted.”
“And now we are seeing another shift,” I replied. “Pronunciation of many Latin-derived or otherwise foreign-derived words is going towards a less anglicized style, like it or not. Data is often said ‘dat-a’ rather than ‘day-ta,’ for instance, and you’ll hear ‘rash-owe’ rather than ‘ray-show’ sometimes for ratio.” (“Yuck,” Margot interjected.) “And then there’s Kahlil Gibran and Genghis Khan, both of which were originally pronounced with ‘j’ where the G‘s are and were spelled that way due to old-style transliteration, but now we see them and think that since they’re not English the G‘s should be ‘g’.”
“Just like ‘fun guy’ for the plural of fungus,” Daryl said. “I mean, if we’re going to say the i as ‘eye,’ why wouldn’t we say the g as ‘j’?”
“Exactly!” Margot said. “Every reason to say ‘may-jye.'”
“Every reason except that the pronunciation seems to be shifting,” I said. “Oh, I’m not saying your pronunciation is wrong; it’s the dictionary version. There’s no question that it’s the formally correct way.”
“Thank you!” Margot said, rapping her cup on the table so hard it made a little geyser through the hole in the plastic lid. Jess interrupted her whipped-cream reverie to hand Margot a serviette or two.
“Could the shift be under the influence of magic?” Daryl mused.
Margot looked at him as if he had lost his mind. “What? Some wizards waving their wands make the vowels change?”
“Magic is cognate with magus,” Jess pointed out. “In fact, it’s almost surprising that we don’t pronounce it ‘may-jic.’ Like an adjectival form of mage, though actually it comes by way of Greek magiké tekhné.”
“Maggie Kay!” Daryl said, echoing the Greek. “Sounds like a nickname for our Margot!”
“Oh, stop,” said Margot. “Maggie makes me think of Maggi, the German answer to soy sauce. Then again, so does the coffee here sometimes.” She looked at Jess’s cup. “Not that one, though.”
Daryl looked at Jess’s beverage, which appeared to have chocolate and nut sprinkles on the nearly-gone whipped cream. “What is that, anyway?”
“It’s an Oh Henry! latte,” she said. “A veritable gift of the magi.” Again, I cannot feel certain that all present recalled that ‘The Gift of the Magi’ is a short story by O. Henry.
“That would explain your adoration of it,” Margot remarked dryly. She turned to me. “I don’t cotton to your idea that somehow a pronunciation can be formally incorrect but still acceptable. It’s right or it’s wrong!”
Jess smiled. “We may have a veritable magus among us,” she said. “After all, a magus, originally, was a member of the Zoroastrian priestly class. The word comes barely altered from Old Persian – of course the plural is Latinized. But as you may know, Zoroastrianism is a dualistic religion: the world is in conflict between the pure good, the one God, the ultimate creator, Ahura Mazda, and the forces of evil, led by Ahriman.”
“Which means,” I commented, “that when Margot makes one of her all-or-nothing pronouncements, we may say, ‘Thus spoke Zarathustra.'”
“And hope,” Jess replied, “she doesn’t remember that the reference there is not to the real prophet Zoroaster, also called Zarathustra, but to Nietzsche’s version of him, who goes around proclaiming that God is dead.”
“Nietzsche is dead,” I responded. “But you’re right, we don’t want to wander into the ideas of the Übermensch and all that proto-Nazi junk.”
“Say,” Daryl said, “apropos of nothing, it occurs to me that Alberta finally got its own. Just going back to what you said about wise men coming from the east, now they’ve sent Stephen Harper to the east as their western magus.”
“Except,” I said, “Stephen Harper grew up in Toronto. So however you look at it, it’s ironic.”
“Well,” said Margot, “isn’t that an epiphany!”