Tag Archives: often

Don’t be misled or go awry

My latest article for The Week is about book words – words you’ve learned from a book without learning the pronunciation. We’ve all had them, and there’s no shame in it:

Don’t be misled or go awry with ‘book words’

And here’s my companion pronunciation tip video (also embedded in the article):

hurricane, forehead, often, scone

I am taking a couple of weeks off and am happy to present tastings by some of the avid word tasters who regularly read my word tasting notes. Today’s tasting is by Tom Priestly.

What an odd salad of words to taste in one sitting! Each shares something savoury with the others (two begin with syllables ending in r, two have syllables starting with h, two contain f, three end with the sound n) but the taste combination does not have anything special to recommend it. This would be the first recipe to be rejected from “Top Word Chef”. Maybe there is another point to this mixture?

There is a point, but it is one that only a puristic old linguist with British roots (an ELP: Elderly Limey Pedant) and long acquainted with North Americans would associate as a single group. What, if any, is the thread that binds these words together? Three nouns, one adverb. Hmm. One with three syllables, two with two and one with one. Hmm again. Give up? I thought so.

The thread is one of pronunciation. Each of these words is pronounced in two ways, and ELP’s will probably have four very different pronunciations from most of the readers of this word-tasting note. As your representative ELP, I admit to a pedantic attachment to these “other” versions.

“In Hertford, Hereford and Hampshire,” sang Eliza Doolittle, “hurricanes hardly happen.” But they do happen in warm Atlantic waters, Caribbean ones especially, and it is in this area that the word originated. There is etymological disagreement: did it come from a Spanish attempt to say the Carib word hurakn, the God of Evil; or to say hun raqan, the Mayan word for the God of the Wind? Whichever it was, the first Spanish version seems to have been furacan or huracan. The latter is clearly the origin of European words for this deadly phenomenon, e.g., French ouragan, German orkan. In England in the 16th C they were called furacanos (the Brits thought that all Spanish words should end in –o!) and then herricanos. Within a century the singular was being spelled hurican, hero-cane, Harry-Cain. In England it is still usually pronounced “hurry-c’n” but –cane became the orthographic norm by the 18th C and encouraged the pronunciation “hurry-cane” that is quite normal — even for a hockey team! — west of the Atlantic. In other words, the mis-spelling resulted in a new pronunciation — or, as an ELP will say, a mis-pronunciation. What is interesting is that neither way of pronouncing the word does justice to the meteorological phenomenon it denotes. Both begin with a breath of air which is surely far less than 28 knots (32 mph, 52 kmh), hence not even typical of a tropical storm; and one of them dissipates into a mild “c’n” while the other ends with a word which is either sweet (sugar cane) or hurtful (six strokes of the cane for you, Bunter!) but in no way devastating. Pity!

“There was a little girl who had a little curl right in the middle of her forehead. When she was good she was very, very good; but when she was bad, she was horrid.” Was she “hore-head” (or perhaps even “whore-head”?) By no means. She was horrid, and the curl was on her “forrid.” The poet who penned this gem was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The word forehead was pronounced “forrid”, then, sometime before 1882 (when Henry W. died), and, we must presume, in Maine, whence he hailed. (By the way, he got away with being christened with “ordinary” given names. His mother’s was Zilpah and grandfather’s, Peleg. Would a Peleg Wadsworth Longfellow have attained such fame?) In any case, here we have another word which developed a new pronunciation because of its spelling (also because of its association with the part of the anatomy where it is located, of course). So, although I normally only hear “forrid” from British lips, this pronunciation was not confined to those islands.

My intent is now clear: to illustrate what are known as “spelling pronunciations.” One of the best examples is hemorrhoids: these were originally known as emerauds or emeralds because of their appearance; some pretentious 16th C eejuts decided to change the first syllable to “haemo-“ or “hemo-“ to show the connection to blood (and they changed the last syllable so that it, too, has a Greek look to it) and now we all pronounce it as it was re-spelled. Not even ELP’s will ask their doctors about treatments for emeralds.

And so to often, which English-speakers everywhere hear being pronounced in both variants, “oft’n” and “off’n”. The two are both so common that nobody thinks of me as an ELP when I say “off’n”. If you took the foregoing examples as a guide, you will have caught my simple rule: the most common pronunciation which is closer to the spelling has ousted the one that is not so close. Following this rule, what must once have been “oft’n” first seems to have changed to “off’n” and then, under the influence of the spelling, was by many people pronounced “oft’n” again. The OED tells us that oft was more common than often (which may have added the second syllable to make it more like its antonym, selden / seldom) until the 16th C, when some scholars were already reporting pronunciations without the “t”. The change “oft’n” to “off’n” follows a regular pattern: soften is pronounced without the “t”, hasten, chasten, listen (with another voiceless fricative before “-t’n”) similarly; look at the simple roots, which keep the “t”: soft, haste, chaste, list (as the verb “to hearken”). Also, the “t” is dropped in another similar combination in whistle, castle. So we should be surprised neither at “off’n”, nor at the orthographically-affected “oft’n”. And maybe we should be listening (“liss-tuh-ning”?) for people to start reverting to “soft’n” and “cast’l” because they are spelled that way.

So what about scone? Its two pronunciations are not equally common: most people, even in Britain, rhyme this word with bone, cone, lone, phone, stone, tone; and only a relative few, ELP’s and others, rhyme it with gone. (Luckily, nobody seems to make it rhyme with one, none, done.) Our true friend the OED defines this as “A large round cake made of wheat or barley-meal baked on a griddle; …more generally, a soft cake of barley- or oatmeal, or wheat-flour, baked in single portions on a griddle or in an oven.” Many people use the word biscuit for the same delectation, but we’ll not open up the question of different words for the same culinary item. The origin of scone was a Scots word scon (the eight historically first examples in the OED are all from Scotland), so my proposed “general rule” holds good: “scoan” is definitely a spelling pronunciation. As it happens, the first recorded new spelling with a final “-e” is from 1744. Our cousins Down Under use scone as a slang word for “head”, and the phrase he’s doing his scone for he’s losing his temper (like the British slang equivalent, he’s doing his nut, with nut also meaning “head”) – but the OED does not tell us whether angry Aussies and choleric Kiwis do their “scoans” or their “scons”.

At least two further questions come up. First, why are some words affected and not others? Why do so many people say “oft’n” while nobody says “”soft’n”? Why do we hear “scoan” for scone but not “goan” for gone? Is it just a question of frequency, or is there more to it than this? — And second, will any more spelling pronunciations ever be heard? Will somepeople begin to rhyme plaque with opaque? Will the “h” be restored to the pronunciations of heir, hour, honour, honest since it is pronounced in initial position in hundreds of other words?

When I ask for something to eat with my coffee, local baristas are (after decades!) slowly getting used to my saying “scoan”. I suspect their hidden amusement at my ELP-ish habit of asking for “one biscotto”, but that is another story.