Mark vs Cancer

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Pronunciation Woes

How do you pronounce the word BANAL?

Simple, right? Five letters, no combination vowels. I know what it means: boring, "drearily predictable and commonplace," as stated on

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 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.
Reassuring. Yet other words fluster me as well. Because I get virtually all my news from newspapers, magazines and the internet and rarely ever watch televsion news, proper nouns are often difficult to peg down. But I think this is understandable for the most part. How would anyone know how to pronounce "Mahmoud Ahmadinejad" or "Rod Blagojevich" except by hearing them? (These happen to be two collosal fools, by the way.)

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.)


Tyler said...

I still have a hard time remembering if the correct pronunciation of "pick up truck" is actually "hiccup truck".

That problem has plagued me since I was two years old and it still embarrasses me.

Tankfos said...

I still can't get the letters BVD out correctly. Sometimes it comes out as BCD or VBC or CBP, but it just never comes out as BVD.

This week I am studying about the autonomic nervous system and how it causes dilation in blood vessels. My whole life I have pronounced it dialation.

Em said...

AW-ry or aw-RY? A-ddict or a-DDICT? I know the right pronunciation but just when I'm about to use it I freeze, stuttering over the usage, thereby displaying my weakness and making a fool of myself in the process.

My main quandary is the everyday use of the proper accent in Spanish words and names. Example: I grew up in Casa Grande. I know I should pronounce it with a Spanish accent, but everyone else says it with a nasally American accent. I feel that I appear pious and annoying by using the Spanish accent. Or should I see it as teaching non-bilingual Americans a lesson in proper Spanish pronunciation?

Matthew said...

Archetype. For the longest time i thought it was pronounced with a "CH" sound like chair. I had a good friend from Spain who said the word that way and he was a psychology major, a field where the word comes up frequently in the works of Jung. So I figured he must have been correct and it's a word you rarely hear in conversation. But Wendi has recently set me straight with this one -- it's actually "ark-uh-type."

Balk. Does it have the "l" or does it rhyme with walk, with the silent L? I seem to prefer the latter but I've heard it pronounced both ways. Is it just me?

I also share your frustration with "banal" and I am glad to know I am not the only person to avoid using it in conversation. Seems like confusion about it is widespread. It just sounds too much like "anal" which is the way I've always pronounced it, and it's usually best to just not go there.

Wendi gives me a lot of crap for the way I say "interesting", which tends to come out something like "inn-er-es-ting" with the barest hint of a T sound in it. She says its a Midwestern thing but my retort is that her pronunciation, "in-tres-ting", is farther from the way the word is spelled than the way I say it. So there.

Em: the dilemma you describe with the proper Spanish pronunciation is one I have too... but I usually opt for the Spanish one if only because I feel like too much of a hick if I pronounce "Buena Vista" "Byooona Vihsta".

There was also a very funny SNL skit about Spanish pronunciation problem long ago, say 1992 or so, featuring Jimmy Smits. Q: "What do you call a swirling mass of air?" A:"A tor-NAH-doh, what else?" :-D

Unfortunately it doesn't seem to be on YouTube or else I would post a link to it... if somebody finds it let me know.

Matthew said...


After Wendi read yr post and my comment she insisted that "walk" and "balk" indeed have L's in them as pronounced. I cannot agree, although perhaps that is just my reptilian male side talking. Am I deaf or is there a subtle L sound in walk? Chalk? Balk? I have always pronounced them "chawk", "wahk" etc. In my nearly thirty-six years on this planet, I have become complacent and lazy in my pronunciation it seems... though even when she says the words to me, I can't hear the L.

I am questioning the nature of my reality and my world is collapsing. Please advise.

Mark said...

To me, there's no "l" sound in walk. But "balk" is a sticky one. I tend to add the "l" there, but it never sounds quite right, though I guess it sounds better to me than "bawk." How about "wolf?" To me, there's a definite "l", but to my lovely wife, it sounds much more like "woof."
Basically, we should all blame the funky English language for these problems. In Spanish and Portuguese, things are pronounced only one way based on a basic set of rules. You can figure out pronunciation just by looking at it. Not so in English.
I blame William the Conquerer

Anonymous said...

Carroll - Meaning of the name (Germanic) man, free man

[ 2 syll. car-rol(l), ca-rro-ll ] The boy name Carroll is also used, but less commonly, as a girl name. (Its pronunciation is KAERahL

[ 2 syll. ca-ryl, car-yl ] The boy name Caryl is also used as a girl name, with the latter form being much more common. Its pronunciation is KEHRahL.