English pronunciation is a balancing act, a tightrope between sound and spelling where even a mild crosswind can lead to a fall. And we can often be a bit myopic in our reading of words. Even if the way a word is put together is right there before our eyes, we might still be misled by an analogy with another word and say it wrong. You may have heard a coworker say charcuterie in a funny way at one time or another, or heard a journalist mispronounce integral – or you may be among the many who have snagged on misled or coworker, for that matter. So it’s not so surprising that I, in my youth, reading about Karl Wallenda, saw the word biopic and assumed – as many people do on seeing it – that it rhymes with myopic.
Well, why not? There’s also biopsy and -optic words like panoptic, not to mention other words ending in -ic like robotic. And sure, you might see bio and even understand that biopic refers to a biographical movie, but is it so hard to imagine that it’s like somehow putting the biography under a microscope or something? Most of us do not carry classical morphological dictionaries around in our heads.
And, frankly, even if we did, it wouldn’t help here. You see, biopic is made from bio – yes, as in biography, and in this case actually shortened from that rather than formed directly from the Greek root bio- – and pic, shortened from picture, which, yes, comes from Latin pictura, but if someone asks you for “a pic,” do you send them a movie? Sure, movies are “moving pictures,” but the use of pic for a movie is a bit dated. (There’s also that mixing of Greek and Latin, but we do that a fair bit, because most of us don’t know otherwise.) And, for that matter, putting stress on pic in the last syllable just seems odd. You sure it shouldn’t be pick then?
Of course not – this is the language where microphone is abbreviated mic and no one wants to have to spell out the present or past participle because of the perversity of c before i and e (look, we used to spell it mike and miking and miked; don’t blame me for all those hip kids changing it). So why shouldn’t we expect biopic to be bio plus pic, as in fact it is, and to be said exactly like “bio pic”?
Just because, in general, we don’t. Those of us who know better know better, and the rest don’t. And that includes some journalists I’ve heard on TV, plus people I know personally, including younger me. Now you know better, if you didn’t before – yes, I am recommending you say biopic as “bio pic,” not only because that’s what it’s meant to be (and Merriam-Webster and the OED insist too) but also because that way you won’t cause anyone to pop a vein in their heads about it, as people occasionally do about “wrong” pronunciations. But there still stands one question: Why not call it something else?
I mean, it’s too late, I suppose. But why don’t we call it, uh, biofilm? That makes sense, right? As long as that word doesn’t mean anything else… [checks earpiece] It what? It does? Oh. Folks, apparently biofilm has an established meaning: to quote the Oxford English Dictionary, “A thin but robust layer of mucilage adhering to a solid surface, containing the community of bacteria and other microorganisms that generated it.”
OK, biopic, as in “bio pic,” as it has been since at least the 1940s. Back on the pronunciation tightrope…
Just like Karl Wallenda, the famous funambulist (tightrope walker). And why did I see biopic associated with Karl Wallenda? Well, it’s just that he was apparently filming a movie about his life when he did a tightrope walk between two 10-storey buildings in San Juan, Puerto Rico. On the day of filming, there was an inadvisable crosswind, but, you know, shooting schedules… and, uh, well, anyway, he made a misstep and consequently concluded his life. And the biopic.