The Orthoepist: Introduction

by chelster on June 14, 2010

[Note: Although Wordnik is a descriptive project, we do feel it's appropriate to give some prescriptivist guidance in the area of pronunciations. So we're happy to introduce Charles Harrington Elster as Wordnik's pronunciation editor.]

Greetings, denizens of Wordnik Universe. My name is Charles Harrington Elster, and I am Wordnik’s new orthoepist. I come in peace — and to speak my piece.

An orthoepist, in case you’re wondering, is a pronunciation expert, specifically someone who studies correct pronunciation (Greek orthos, right, correct + epos, word) and who issues opinions about how words are properly or improperly spoken. As Wordnik’s orthoepist, my responsibilities will include recording correct pronunciations for difficult words and names and for so-called problematic words, where there is doubt or dispute about what is acceptable — or, in the lingo of linguists, “standard.” In some cases I will provide a comment, comparable to a usage note in a print dictionary, to give you more information that will help you decide how best to say a particular word. And each month I will contribute a post to this blog addressing various matters of orthoepy and usage.

But I would be remiss in my duties if I did not tell you, immediately and ex cathedra, how to pronounce orthoepist and orthoepy. The tricky question is where to put the main stress in these words, and, wouldn’t you know, even the orthoepists have never been able to agree on that.

Many phonological cognoscenti, especially in the United States, stress orthoepist and orthoepy on the second syllable: or-THOH-uh-pist, or-THOH-uh-pee. But authorities have also long countenanced first-syllable stress: OR-thoh-uh-pist, OR-thoh-uh-pee. And the great Oxford English Dictionary, which reflects British preference, lists OR-thoh-EP-ist and the peculiar OR-thoh-EE-pee first followed by several variants. Perhaps because I like the idea of emphasizing the notion of correctness in these words (ortho-), or perhaps because I was born a contrarian, I prefer OR-thoh-uh-pist and OR-thoh-uh-pee. Now it’s your turn to choose, and I trust you will choose wisely.

For choosing wisely is what this business of orthoepy is all about. As Abraham and Betty Lass observed in their Dictionary of Pronunciation (1976), “You can . . . make a million, have friends, influence people, be admired for your good sense, be loved for your good heart, send your children to the best colleges, become President of the United States even if your pronunciation is not what it should be. But you will still be judged by the words you mispronounce. And you may not be judged kindly.” (Think Dubya and his infamous nucular for nuclear.)

As Wordnik’s orthoepist — your orthoepist, really, because I’ll be working for and accessible to you — it will be my job to make sure that you are not judged unkindly for your pronunciation. What are my credentials for this job? As the author of The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations, the pronunciation editor of the seventh and eighth editions of Black’s Law Dictionary, and a longtime radio commentator on language, I bring more than twenty-five years of orthoepic (OR-thoh-EP-ik) experience to the table.

My definition of standard does not include controversial, stigmatized, or eccentric pronunciations, and I will not sanction anything questionable, as some lexicographers regrettably do. And because I frown equally on ostentation and carelessness, I will counsel you to avoid both affected and slovenly speech. In short, you can rest assured that any pronunciation I record or recommend here will be cultivated, not merely in vogue or in widespread use. So as you wander the Wordnik Universe, when you see chelster beneath a recorded pronunciation, that’s me giving you an unimpeachable way of saying a word.

I welcome your comments, your questions, and especially your suggestions on words to record. I will do my best to respond to all communications that are composed with a civil tongue. You can reach me at Orthoepist@wordnik.com.

And now, let us “engage the instrument of the language,” as the poet and etymologist John Ciardi once put it, and have fun playing it.

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