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I'm sure you all recognize the line "Words, words, words." from Hamlet. It's his response to Polonius's question "What do you read, my lord?" in Act II when Hamlet has affected an "antic disposition". Seems like a good title for a new blog series on the changing nature of words.

Thought I would select two words that have undergone change in my lifetime and try to figure out how that happened. I recognize that this topic might not interest everyone, but language is fairly important to me--like oxygen--so let's see what I can come up with!

I'll start with a pair of words that I remember the nuns in grade school admonishing us about, assuring us that if we mispronounced them we'd probably be cast into the sulfurous fires of hell for all eternity.

First up is "schism". Meaning a rift or a division, especially in the context of religious or political beliefs. As in "the Great Schism" that took place in the Christian church centuries ago. I no longer hear the word pronounced the way I was taught. Ever. I only hear it today pronounced "skizm", with the "ch" sound being pronounced as if it were a "k". Even very learned people pronounce it this way. They would be spending their futures in flames if it were up to the nuns who taught me! I was told to pronounce the word as if it were spelled "sizm" or "siz'-um". No exceptions. Why the discrepancy and the change?

My pronunciation had generally been considered the correct one for Americans speaking English, as opposed to those speaking British English. We all know there are many variations in how to pronounce words on the two sides of "the Pond". Words such as "advertisement" or "aluminum" or "controversy" or "schedule". See examples in the video below.

So, how did this change take place? Here is a recent usage note from that might clarify things:

Usage Note: The word schism, which was originally spelled scisme in English, is traditionally pronounced (sĭz'əm). However, in the 16th century the word was respelled with an initial sch in order to conform to its Latin and Greek forms. From this spelling arose the pronunciation (skĭz'əm). Long regarded as incorrect, it became so common in both British and American English that it gained acceptability as a standard variant. Evidence indicates, however, that it is now the preferred pronunciation, at least in American English. In a recent survey 61 percent of the Usage Panel indicated that they use (skĭz'əm), while 31 percent said they use (sĭz'əm). A smaller number, 8 percent, preferred a third pronunciation, (shĭz'əm).

Even a third pronunciation--"shiz'-um"--made it to the list of choices, although I have never met a single person who thinks that's correct. As you can see from the note, once you reach a tipping point of people pronouncing a word a certain way, it tends to become the "accepted pronunciation". And by our current rules, "schism" looks like it should be pronounced "skizm". Soon, the formerly correct way seems incorrect and people who pronounce it that way appear uneducated!

That happened to me recently at a dinner party. I was referring to the business smarts of a famous entrepreneur and mentioned his financial acumen. I pronounced the word as I learned it--uh-kyoo'-men. Stress on the middle syllable, not the first. But nearly everyone today refers to someone's "ak'-yu-men", emphasis on the first syllable. All the people at my table must have thought me poorly educated. Funny, though, when I first started teaching AP Literature, I was given a vocabulary book to use, and "acumen" was one of the words. There was one accepted pronunciation, and that was "uh-kyoo'-men".

But in the video above, not only does this lady spend more than a minute showing us how to pronounce the word, she doesn't even give my version as an option! What happened? The same company's vocabulary book forty years later now has "ak'-yu-men" as the correct pronunciation! You can still find people who recommend the pronunciation I grew up with, but not many, and they are dying out fast! The video below uses the "uh-kyoo'-men pronunciation, but you can see that there is an alternate pronunciation too.

Here is another usage note, this time from the American Heritage Dictionary.

Usage Note: The pronunciation (ăk'-yə-mən), with stress on the first syllable, has long been accepted as a standard pronunciation. It is an Anglicization of an older, traditional pronunciation (ə-kyoo'-mən) that reflects the word's Latin origin. In our 2016 survey, only 34 percent of the Usage Panel found the older pronunciation acceptable (down from 60 percent in 1997), and only 14 percent preferred it, suggesting that this pronunciation is falling out of use.

You can see that as recently as 1997, 60% of members on the Usage Panel found my version acceptable. Now it's down to 34%, with less than half that number preferring it. But I had learned the word more than thirty years before the 1997 panel convened, when "uh-kyoo'-men" was the overwhelmingly used pronunciation and the one that was largely preferred. I'm beginning to think now, however, that I might be one of the last to say the word that way. When I die, it'll be gone! I recommend you don't use my pronunciation of this word unless you want to get into a long discussion of the fluidity of language. You probably shouldn't say "siz'-um" either! You might create one.

Next entry: primer and Caribbean

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