Word Maven Patricia T. O'Conner

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Word maven Patricia T. O'Conner takes your calls on the English language. A few things she wants to talk about today are the words "ask" vs. "axe," and how the word "subprime" made it into the OED. Call 646-778-3729 to ask Patricia a question.


Patricia T. O'Conner

Comments [32]


Honky dory meaning "satisfactory or OK" is not Japanese. The closest phrase would be "Honke Dori," which means creating a (Japanese style) short poem based on a classic one.

The one the caller talked about, "Honcho Do-ri," means "Honcho street." "Honcho" comes from "Hancho" a group leader.

Jul. 18 2008 12:46 PM
Ted Kijeski from Dictionaries and the yew-hew merge


I agree that dictionaries play a descriptive role in the language, but they also play a pre-scriptive role as well. Even Leonard, who is no slouch when it comes to the use of language, admitted that he has been hesitant to pronounce certain words he encountered when reading because he didn't know how they were supposed to be pronounced. If we took your prescriptive-only view, why would it matter? So I respectfully submit that your understanding of the purpose of dictionaries is at least as "wrong" as mine! Your point about local dialect is well taken, though. But when it comes to the yew-hew merge, I'm glad to see the back of it.

Jul. 18 2008 08:02 AM
al from brooklyn

ted: are you really celebrating the loss of local dialect? because that's kind of gross. dialect keeps our language vibrant. and as for the dictionaries, they do not exist to tell us what pronunciations are 'correct'. they exist to tell us how words are used and spoken by the people who speak english (well, english language dictionaries anyway). it's a gross, common, and actually -wrong- understanding of dictionaries. and you're a teacher!

Jul. 18 2008 02:41 AM
Marc Naimark from Paris

H-dropping: for fine examples of this, listen while you can to Mike Pesca on NPR's Bryant Park Project (sorry, it's better than The Takeaway). It's on the air for 6 more times, having been canceled by the dolts at NPR, so make the most of it.

My "favorite" Pesca h-dropping was during a story on the Houston, TX, music scene. Each instance of "Houston" was pronounced "Youston". A horror and a delight!

Jul. 17 2008 04:45 PM
Marc Naimark from Paris

Re "groom". Isn't the wedding sense of "groom" a short form of "bridegroom"? I suppose that means that the bride is treated as a horse?

Jul. 17 2008 03:49 PM
Paul from New Mexico

Re: Pronunciation of Imprimatur

Let me reinforce comment #19: the Oxford English Dictionary lists the ONLY pronunciation of "imprimatur" as one with the accent on the 2nd - not the 3rd - syllable. Variations are identified only for alternative pronunciations of the 3rd and 4th syllables, not in the placement of the accent. A related but very different word, "imprimatura," referring to a colored transparent glaze used as a primer, has the accent on the 3rd syllable.

Jul. 17 2008 12:32 PM
Ted Kijeski from Philadelphia

Re: Stephen's annoyance at "h-dropping"

Linguists call this the "Yew-Hew Merge," and I'm not making that up. I'm a college speech teacher in Philadelphia and this drives me nuts as well. It's endemic to Philadelphia just as it is to New York and some parts of New England. For those of us who equate this pronunciation with the sound of nails on a chalkboard, there is good news: it is almost certainly dropping out of common usage; I hardly ever hear it among the current crop of college students, though they report to me that this is how their parents speak. The practice was probably inherited from one or more of the British dialects whose speakers were the first to populate the colonies on the Eastern seabord (various British dialects have dropped their h's throughout history just as they do now). Many dictionaries have caved in and declared the two pronunciations as equally acceptable. Those dictionaries are wrong, of course.

Jul. 16 2008 07:15 PM
al oof from brooklyn

to number 23: "on line" is specifically new york city, not the US. you might find a person here or there in say philly who says it, but it's not heard elsewhere in the US.

Jul. 16 2008 02:52 PM

--an Indian tribe can be a nation, but not a country, since it is spread around.

And Hawaii and Alaska arene't part of the country? I think we need a finer distinction.

This reminds me of the difference between England, Great Britain and the UK.

Jul. 16 2008 02:15 PM
Wondering? from NY

I am Canadian and since I have been here in USA, I constantly here "get on line". I've always said "get in line". Wondering what the difference is and which is correct?

Jul. 16 2008 02:10 PM

Similar to JT's post, and contrary to Catherine Heyland's post, according to my copy of Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, it is acceptable to pronounce the word "imprimatur" both ways.

Whenever I have heard the word "ask" pronounced as "aks", it has always been by someone from a low social/economic standing.

Jul. 16 2008 02:07 PM
David Skolnik from Hastings on Hudson

I couln't get to the phone in time. I would have liked to link the last callers question about changing accents with the differencs between Leonard's speech and his brother's, though it's probably already been addressed at some point. Thanks

Jul. 16 2008 02:06 PM
Helen from Manhattan

The country/nation distinction is actually somewhat the opposite of what Patricia stated, per the dictionary. Country refers to the geographical territory of a "nation", while the latter is the governmental organization of such. Thus an Indian tribe can be a nation, but not a country, since it is spread around. I only vaguely remeber Daniel Shore's remarks, but, as would be expected, they were of more substance than a simple distinction between the words.

Jul. 16 2008 01:57 PM
JT from Long Island

According to Merriam Webster Leonard's pronounciation of imprimator is also OK:

Jul. 16 2008 01:56 PM
Benigno Veraz from Wahsington Washington

Isn't about time that the English Language add its twenty-seventh letter? I find the Spanish words in the English dictionary, niño, niña, mañana. Think what it will do the internet domains.

Jul. 16 2008 01:55 PM
isabel from LES

how do you pronounce "comely"?

Jul. 16 2008 01:54 PM
Lane Trippe from NYC

An attorney is just one who practices on behalf of (or represents) another. An attorney may be "at law" (as in "at the bar" or "at a court of law") or, in common usage, "in fact", one who does or is authorized to stand in for another.

-an attorney at law, admitted to the Bar in Louisiana.

Check Wikipedia.

Jul. 16 2008 01:53 PM
lauren from brooklyn

Is it "deep-seeded", or "deep-seated" and why?

Jul. 16 2008 01:44 PM
Steve from Hoboken, NJ

re: country/nation

country always refers to a physical place, whereas nation can be more conceptual, as in "red sox nation".

Jul. 16 2008 01:43 PM
Fred Hunter

country = land/borders
nation = people
state = form of gov't, etc.

Jul. 16 2008 01:40 PM
Peter Joseph from Brooklyn

My sense is that country is the place, nation refers to the people. One talks about "countries of the world" but "among all the nations."

Jul. 16 2008 01:40 PM
Catherine Hyland from Upper West Side

I love Leonard's use of the language and his pronunciation in general. One pronunciation misstep, I think, and a word that I love his using from time to time:

"Imprimatur" takes the accent on the "ma" and not the "pri". And the "ma" is pronounced as if you were shouting to your Mom, As a former Catholic (where the word is used parochially)and Nun, thought I'd chime in. Best, C.

Jul. 16 2008 01:39 PM
Stephen from Manhattan

I find it annoying when people pronounce "HUGE" by dropping the "H" and say "uge" instead. This is true of many words that begin with "H" where many New Yorkers drop the "hhh" sound altogether. What's the basis for this?

Jul. 16 2008 01:36 PM

If Leonard is bothered by mispronunciations of "jewelry," he hear the many mangled pronunciations of "Judiciary Square" on the DC Metro.

Jidushiary, Jishuary, and an almost infinite number of variations.

I remember one conductor just obviously gave up altogether and said simply, "Jishy Square."

Jul. 16 2008 01:34 PM

I heard people pronounce water was wor-der.... any thoughts?

Jul. 16 2008 01:33 PM
Bonnie from new york

Pet mispronunciation peeves:

fermiliar (familiar)
fertographer (photographer)
Robinson Carusoe (Crusoe)
and the truly heinous: nucular

Jul. 16 2008 01:33 PM

Any idea what "Beg the Question" really means?

Jul. 16 2008 01:32 PM
al oof from brooklyn

leonard, you shouldn't get so worked up about these pronunciations. language is fluid! accept it, you'll feel better.

Jul. 16 2008 01:31 PM
Dan from Brooklyn

Wondering which is correct: "education system" or "educational system"?

Jul. 16 2008 01:28 PM
al oof from brooklyn

i hear a lot of people say "ass" instead of ask. including myself!

Jul. 16 2008 01:27 PM
Voter from Brooklyn

Ms. O’Conner has mentioned definitions to words in the (American) English language are often subject to an evolving standard, but what about literary devices?
I ask because of the recent kerfuffle over the current New Yorker cover. Specifically, understanding what satire is to know whether or not it was used correctly (as a defense by the editor) or successfully (on the cover.) Do people understand what satire is or use the word correctly? The same goes for irony, sarcasm, and wit.

Jul. 16 2008 01:15 PM
Chris from NJ

Did not know "aks" was a word.

Jul. 16 2008 11:37 AM

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