Once Upon a Word

Oct 10, 2008

I’m no scholar, but I appreciate people who speak well. My dad was an eloquent speaker, gifted with the ability to frame his thoughts with well-chosen words. It’s not that he was so highly educated whereby he gained such a command of the English language. He simply valued the power of language and its importance in every day communication.

Growing up, I watched my dad engage people in conversation about any given subject, from the seemingly mundane to the hot button issues of the day, with wit and passion. He had an opinion and could clearly convey it. He wrote letters to editors and articles for newspapers about issues he wished to weigh in on, many of which I have and keep in a box of special mementos. I remember him talking back to news anchors on the TV screen when they used words incorrectly. As a young person, of course, I just thought he was odd and nit-picky, but now I understand exactly why he did that.

The other day I heard the voice behind a radio ad for a local Real Estate Agency pronounce the word realty as ree-la-tee, when the correct way to say the word is ree-uhl-tee. I found myself speaking my correction at the radio as my children eyed me curiously.

I did it again while watching television with my family as a famous political figure pronounced the word Iraq as eye-rack. I abruptly rectified the error out loud saying, “The correct way to say it is ĭ-rahk or ĭ-răk.” A more favorable observation was made shortly thereafter as I pointed out this politician’s ability to speak without packing 6 ‘ums’ into each sentence. Love that! My loved ones were not amused. Nor was a little girl I gently corrected not long ago after she said, “We was going to go…” I countered, “We were going to go, sweetie. It’s we were, not we was.”

Recently I caught myself saying a commonly used phrase that suddenly sounded strange as it left my tongue. I said, “Now that’s a ‘whole nother’ thing.” Wondering if I had misspoken, I was curious about the word “nother.” According to “The Mavens’ Word of the Day” by RandomHouse:

The word nother, which simply means ‘other; different’, comes from a misdivision of an other or another. This type of misdivision has several parallels in English. The word newt was originally “ewte” in Middle English, but the phrase “an ewte” was changed to “a newt.” Similarly, nickname was originally “an ekename” (“eke” being an archaic word for ‘also’ that still pops up from time to time), but was misdivided as “a nekename.” In the other direction, apron was once “napron,” but “a napron” was turned into “an apron.”

I’ve turned into my dad and my kids think I’m odd and nit-picky. I share his love of the English language. Like dad, I appreciate the correct pronunciation and use of words and feel it is important to present ones thoughts and ideas as vividly as possible. Speaking eloquently shouldn’t be just an aspiration of a few. Words, either spoken or written, have the power to enlighten and inspire, igniting the imagination of their recipient. Weave them well, I say.

Having revealed all this, imagine my horror years ago when my first son came home from school with a story he’d written replete with uncorrected spelling errors. His teacher explained that this was a teaching technique called “Inventive Spelling.” I wasn’t buying it…but that’s a whole nother article.