Saying It My Way

And now ‘tis time for a small rant:

But first:  It was at the beginning of the seventeenth century that Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra wrote his masterpiece El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha (The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha).  The timing is significant only because Spanish pronunciation has evolved considerably since then.

At the time Cervantes was writing, that “x” in middle of Quixote’s name was pronounced more or less like “sh” and Quixote sounded something like “ki-shoat” or maybe “ki-shoat-te.”  Over time, the “x” began to be pronounced more like an “h,” to the point that today the entire Spanish world spells it “Quijote.”

All of which would be completely irrelevant if it did not provide a small bit of historical justification for the fact that the British still call the Knight of the Woeful Countenance Don Kwiksoat or Kwikset. [Not that any people who make Chumly out of Cholmondeley and Lester out of Leicester can ever really be reasonably justified.]

And the only reason for bringing that up is because I have heard that English pronunciation used to explain/excuse one of our more beastly Americanisms: the way we pronounce Quixotic as kwiksotic.

Personally, I think any putative British ancestry of our usage is just plain nonsense.  I suspect the truth is we ignorant Americans just encountered the adjective before we knew about the proper noun.  We treated it as a newly coined word and simply pronounced the “x” the way we would in a more familiar word like “elixir.”  While American English is wonderfully open to adding new words, even from other languages, we can be rather cavalier about pronouncing them in our own peculiar way.

Which is about as far as I can go in excusing the fact that we now know how to pronounce Don Quixote correctly, but we stubbornly refuse to correct our misuse of quixotic.  It’s an eponym, for God’s sake, and we should pronounce it as such.  If we say ki-ho-ti for the man, we should say ki-ho-tic for those that are like him.

Which, being by nature a contrarian, is what I insist on doing.

And while I am admitting to linguistics oddities based on my own quixotic insistence on following the way things ought to be as opposed to how everyone else does them, let me reveal another:  Primer.

Not the base coat of paint.  We pronounce that one with a hard “i,” as we should, based on our highly irregular “rules” of English pronunciation.  Nor am I talking about the device we use to set off explosives.  That, too, we pronounce with a hard “i.”

Instead, I am talking about your first lesson book on any given subject.  That is spelled the same way but is pronounced, in America at least, with a soft “i,” to sound like “I am more prim than you are.”

This one just makes me nuts.

We mean to say that it is your primary book, but we don’t pronounce it that way.  We mean to say that it comes first, as in every other usage, but we pronounce it differently from all the other primes.  And why?  Almost certainly because pedantic teachers in early America insisted on making it sound like the word they had learned in Latin class, the primarius, with a soft “i.”

Obsolete, as a historical footnote of how we once did things, primmer would have a bit of entertainment value.  But for it to have survived till today, in defiance of all other usages, is a triumph of academic prissiness over common sense.

So, at the risk of someone assuming I don’t know any better, I pronounce it with the hard ‘i.’

As, of course, it should be.

Mind you, I don’t do these things in any vain hope that I will start a trend.  Nor is it because I think that English pronunciation is so clear and consistent that all illogical deviations should be ruthlessly stamped out. [Through the rough he ploughed, coughing out loud.]

No, it is mostly, I suspect, for the sheer pleasure one gets swimming upstream in the simple assurance that you are right and everyone else wrong.

And since I am venting about one of my majority-of-one topics (I have a number), let me move off from pronunciation to meaning and etymology.

There is a word that I don’t think I will live long enough to see restored to its proper meaning:  decimate.

Originally (based on a draconic Roman custom of punishing a military unit by killing every tenth soldier), to decimate meant simply to reduce by a tenth.  Could be population, number of houses, ships in a fleet, etc.  For all us old Latin students, it’s a nice word, since it contains its definition (Latin: decimus = a tenth) right in the word.  Even if you had never seen the word before, its meaning was obvious.

Somehow (I suspect from sounding a lot like devastate), a misuse of this word has come to be standard.  It is now an extremely fashionable word on cable and in blogs, used as meaning “to kill or destroy the largest part.”

Now I know that dictionaries are there to record usage and not to enforce rules, but I regret the easy adoption of a word whose usage clearly contradicts its etymology, especially when the etymology (decimal system, decimeter, etc.) is part of our common understanding.

I suspect that once the word ceases to be fashionable and returns to being used mostly by scholastic types, its internal logic (and all those Latin classes) will naturally cause it to return to its old meaning.  But, as I said, I don’t expect to live long enough to see that happen.

It is not, by the way, that I object to the meaning or even the pronunciation of words evolving.  I have friends who are still fighting a last-ditch battle against pronouncing forte as fortay and against foyer being interchangeably either foiyer or foiyay.  These fail to trouble me.

But of late cable TV and the Internet seem to be conspiring to degrade the language.  As an example, I would argue that pundits who ought to know better who pronounce “cache,” as in “a cache of arms” as kashay, as in “a cache of arms designed by Gucci,” ought to be shot at dawn.  There is simply a difference between gradual evolution and current misuse.

Speaking of tilting at windmills (i.e. attacking a target too vast to be vulnerable), does anyone in the media know that comprise and compose do not have the same meaning?  How about imply and infer?  Nauseous and nauseated?  Militate and mitigate?  Or my current favorite (heard from a global warming expert!) that climatic is not quite the same as climactic?

Words, after all, are our servants.  If we collectively choose to change their meaning or pronunciation, who is to say we are wrong?  That is one side of the argument.  On the other side we have ignoramuses who form a sort of collective of their own (the illiterosphere?  moronosphere?).  Unintentional deconstructionists, they treat words as if they have no real meaning beyond their own current use.

Sadly, our technology has not only given these folks a virtual community of their own, but it has increased their power and influence in two damaging ways.  First, their ability to infect everyone else has now accelerated to the speed of light.  Second, each misuse passes by our eyes and ears so quickly that it is beyond anyone’s ability to correct.  A new meaning of synergy: combining acute infectiousness with a practical immunity to correction.

Gives a whole new meaning to what Lewis Carroll wrote in Through the Looking Glass:

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *