Thursday, November 10, 2011


 [This word is a gift to the WDJ community.  It is pronounced OR-tho-ep-ee, and means ‘correct pronunciation’.]

Many decades ago, stranded in Canada (and how harmoniously albeit lugubriously those words do chime:  stranded and Canada !) with a wife and two-year-old child in tow, facing a future of academic stoop labor, I decided to bail.  On a corridor wall at the MLA conference  was a notice announcing the intention of the time-honored firm of Merriam-Webster, Inc.  (G&C Merriam; Noah Webster) to hire an Editor of Etymology.  At Berkeley I’d done a fair amount of Romance Philology, and Germanistik, and Indo-European,  so the job-description fit like a condom -- er, rather, a glove.  I jumped at the chance.

The interviewer was a massive and dyspepic man, Dr. Frederick C. Mish, known to his intimates at M-W (none) as “FCM”.   In this, he was channeling his patron saint, the beatified lexicographer Dr. Johnson (I italicize in the 18th-century style),  a massive dyspeptic portrait of whom  adorned his spacious office as Editor-in-Chief.
The interview was going smoothly.  Names like Malkiel, Penzl, Beeler (for Rom.Phil, OHG, and Old Norse/IE, respectively) rolled off my tongue.  Auxiliary work in syntax, semantics, and field methods, also came in for mention.
Yet some indwelling imp  or gremlin  somehow required, that at each such interview, I should blurt out something self-deprecating.   And in this case (so I smugly thought:  safely enough) I was moved to mention that “the only thing I really didn’t do, and have no interest in, nor aptitude for, is phonetics and phonology”.  (True, like everyone else in the program, I took Ohala’s laboratory-phonetics course; but there weren’t any prominent phonologists on the Berkeley staff.)
To my surprise -- to my amazement -- to my chagrin:  he frowned.  And you have not witnessed a genuine frown, until you have seen one spread, 
first across the brow,
then across the (massive, bloated) visage,
then somehow across the entire supraterrestrial paunch,
of either the late lamented Samuel Johnson, or the (hopefully still with us, but anyhow not dreadfully lamented) Frederick C. Mish.
“HMMMMMmmmmmm…. “ he rumbled.  “That’s a problem.”
“Because we actually just fired our Editor of Pronunciation, and we were hoping to hire a single person who could handle both jobs.”

The next couple of months, no word from M-W/FCM, were agonizing;  I had resolved to man-up and become a bricklayer.   Perhaps the tale of those times may be retailed someday.   But -- summary -- contra expectations, I did eventually get the job (both jobs) -- for a starting salary of $19,000 (nineteen thousand dollars) per annum (total -- not per job).
Whereby hang a multitude of tales, some of which I have written up, for publication after my (eventual; imminent) demise…
The point of bringing this all up here, is that, will-I, nill-I, I was dragooned into the pronunciation racket.  And  eventually (relievedly) left it.   Yet, based upon the Blogspot report of searchstrings that find this site, “pronunciation” seems to be a persistent interest of my massive worldwide fanbase.  (I would say, “intergalactic fanbase”, but that Blogspot does not record extraterrestrial logins.)  Therefore, bowing to the dictate of fate, I shall continue to offer pronunciation guidance for difficult words and names.   Certainly, those used in this blog itself.  But if, additionally, some of you have queries -- uncertainties that have kept you awake at nights --  ….. ( *  sigh  * ) ….
Thus, immediately below,  I explain to a grateful world   that Amos Oz rhymes, not with spas, but with rose.   (This, from a radio interview with the man himself.   On the job at The Little Red Schoolhouse on Federal Street, I would make a note of such attestations  on 3x5 index cards, which were alphabetized and filed each week   in a crammed back-closet  by “the ladies of the typing room.”)  And the spiritus now moves me to reveal, that Dickens’ boyhood nickname (and eponym of his earliest work, Sketches by Boz), likewise rhymes with “rose” (and “nose”, and many other words one could mention).  This astonishing and counterintuitive fact is explained by the Science of Etymology (the other hat I wore chez Merriam):  it recalls a childish mispronunciation of Moses, with a long o.


  1. Obituary for Mish.

    In recent years I have myself become rather dyspeptic (sense #2); perhaps I am not sufficiently "stranded" in Canada?

    The problem with "Ōz" is writing it in English.  The name, when written in its native character set, is not confusable with "Aws".  A similar problem arises with Japanese names beginning with a long vowel, such as Ōta.  It chould be transliterated as "Oota" except that 'oo' happens to mean something else.  I think the usual solution is "Ohta" which suggests a breathiness that Japanese lacks.

  2. Thank you for your comments, Pye'; I concur completely.
    If you don't feel stranded now, just wait till the snowfalls.
    Nonetheless, you made a wise choice: as witness the recent "Republican" "debates". You're well out of it.