Simple, right? Five letters, no combination vowels. I know what it means: boring, "drearily predictable and commonplace," as stated on dictionary.com.
But how is it pronounced? BAY-nal? Or is it bah-NAL? It's one of dozens of words of which I understand the usage, pass over without thinking when seeing it in print, and yet find myself reluctant to use in public due to pronunciation uncertainty, which reminds me of a quote that a college friend had on his wall: "Better to remain silent and appear a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt."
These are significant concerns for a logophile (word lover) such as myself, who, in all humility, absolutely rocks at word games such as Scrabble and Boggle. But in finally trying to resolve this conundrum, I came across a passage that helped me realize my concerns about BANAL are widespread and justified.
This is what dictionary.com has to say about it:
- Usage Note: The pronunciation of banal is not settled among educated speakers of American English. Sixty years ago, H.W. Fowler recommended the pronunciation (bān'əl, rhyming with panel), but this pronunciation is now regarded as recondite by most Americans: no member of the Usage Panel prefers this pronunciation. In our 2001 survey, (bənāl') is preferred by 58 percent of the Usage Panel, (bā'nəl) by 28 percent, and (bə-näl') by 13 percent (this pronunciation is more common in British English). Some Panelists admit to being so vexed by the problem that they tend to avoid the word in conversation. Speakers can perhaps take comfort in knowing that these three pronunciations each have the support of at least some of the Usage Panel and that none of them is incorrect. When several pronunciations of a word are widely used, there is really no right or wrong one.
I'm embarrassed to say that until about eighteen months ago, though I had read it dozens of times in print, I thought our new President's first name was pronounced BEAR-ack instead of bah-ROCK.
An example closer to home is the pronunciation of Ken Caryl Ranch, the subdivision where I grew up and where we now live. The name is derived from area rancher John Shaffer's two sons, Kent and Carrol, and I have it on printed authority from the official Ken Caryl history that the correct pronunciation is Ken Carol, as in Christmas carol. Yet most people, even longtime residents, colloquially refer to it as Ken Carl, as in Carl Weathers, or Carl Sagan, or Carl's Jr.
I use this name several times every day in common speech, telling someone where we live or giving directions to my new clinic. I had been hamstrung by the question, "Should I pronounce it the way it's used, or the way that's correct?" but I've settled on on saying it correctly, and I've noticed something interesting. Nobody flinches or acts confused when I say it this way, just as I (almost) don't notice when I hear it pronounced the colloquial way. Most likely, this is because most normal people don't give a hoot about things like this. But to me it seems that Ken Caryl, like BANAL, has two correct pronunciations. In fact, a couple of weeks ago in church, a respected speaker, who has lived in the Ken Caryl Ranch for twenty plus years, used both pronunciations within a minute when referring to the Ken Caryl Ward. He didn't blink, and I don't think anyone else noticed but me.
I'm sure some of you have similar pronunciation woes, or words that vex you. Let's hear them. (Just try not to sound like an idiot.)