Glossary / You open your mouth and a bomb goes off

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A friend of mine recently received a letter (from the Passport Office as it happened) in which he was asked to confirm that he used the Christian name he had entered on an application form 'for all intense purposes'. He resisted the temptation to write back informing them that, no, he only used it for routine matters and when things got intense he liked to call himself Ramon.

It would have been a little unfair to be superior, anyway, because this was surely a glowing example of an affliction that almost everyone has suffered at one time or another; the time bomb1 presence in your vocabulary of a word or phrase that you think you have right but which, if ever uttered, goes off with a nasty bang in your face.

It is mostly a problem of pronunciation, which is more a matter of experience than knowledge - there is always a first time to find out how to say a word and if it happens to be when you have achieved a Senior Professorship then that is bad luck for you, not really a reflection on your intelligence. You might know exactly what porphyry2 means - might, indeed, be able to write a canonical essay about the use of the stone in Venetian monumental architecture - but if, when you come to say it aloud, you put the stress in the wrong place your knowledge will unfairly be turned to dust.

I use this slightly arcane example because I can still remember an argument with a friend over its pronunciation - I said 'PORphyry' and he said 'PorPHYry'. It didn't matter either way, of course. But the prickliness with which we defended our versions brought home the way in which pronunciation has become falsely bound up with ideas of cultivation and intelligence. For either of us to correct the other was to interrupt the equable see-saw of conversation with an unpleasant bump.

It can present real social difficulties. I don't want to trespass on my colleague Virginia Ironside's territory but what exactly do you do with somebody who is pronouncing a word wrongly? To point it out immediately makes you sound like a prig, more interested in superficial correctness than what he or she is actually saying (it is also almost impossible to find a tone of voice that isn't haughtily instructive or condescending). To remain silent can force you into verbal gymnastics in order to avoid having to pronounce the same word aloud yourself. You can mispronounce it deliberately, of course, but that only postpones the problem.

Sometimes you can just burst out laughing. I followed that course when my brother revealed that he thought the temporary structures found on building sites were pronounced 'PorTAKa-bins' - presumably on the basis that they were a sort of bin manufactured by a company called Portaka. Another friend once complained about the 'rahZAHMatazz' surrounding some event and was met with the same response. But neither of those examples were really threatening to their amour propre - trade names and slang are not part of anyone's higher education and there may even be a sort of cachet in getting them wrong.

That clearly isn't the case with the man who pronounced the word pace (as in 'pace Lord Tebbit, I believe Europe is the future') as 'paysee' and thought that it implied agreement with the named speaker, perhaps because of some false connection with 'keeping pace with'. Similarly, the friend who believed the great German writer was pronounced as if it was an instruction ('Go, Eth') was set for ghastly embarrassment3 in some bookshop.

We are close here to the Freudian slip (brilliantly described by Cliff Claven in Cheers as 'when you mean one thing but say a mother'), or at least to that version of it in which the speaker remains unaware of the mistake and may repeat it on several occasions. In those cases, mispronunciation may be so fruitful that you would not want to intervene, even if you could think of a tactful way of doing so.

My favourite example is the occasion on which I was in conversation with a faculty wife at a university function. She was complaining about the fact that her status was inseparable from her husband's role on campus, a fact that stung her sharply when she was introduced as 'Dr X's wife'. When that happened, she protested with inadvertent wit: 'I can't help it, but my shackles just rise'.

1 Probably from bombo, a humming noise. Derives from the same source as boom.

2 From the Greek porphyros, purple.

3 From the French embarrasser, to obstruct or block.