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The Scrivener: Planned Failings

So what do you call a banjo player? Now, now... This is a seriously funny column. Brian Barratt explores the idiosyncratic pronunciation and meaning of certain words.

For lots more mental fun and games visit Brian's Web site The Brain Rummager www.alphalink.com.au/~umbidas/

It’s good to have your vocabulary expanded. A person who makes guitars is called a luthier. I did not know that until a few days ago. The term was used in a very good ABC TV documentary about an Australian instrument maker whose guitars are used by performers around the world.

Not many dictionaries include ‘luthier’. It originally denoted a lute maker but was later applied to violin and viola makers, and expanded to include other stringed instruments. The lute was in vogue as long ago as the 1400s. Lute-makers were at work by the 1500s. Luthier did not appear in print until the 1870s. It seems to be in the same pretentious category as ‘flautist’, which first appeared in print around 1860. Until then, people who play flutes had been called flutists or flute-players.

I wonder if there’s a pretentious word for someone who plays the banjo, which is also a stringed instrument? ‘Banjo’ did not appear in print until the late 1700s. A hundred years later, ‘banjoist’ appeared. In this very bland context, I feel sure that a banjo-maker would like to be referred to as a luthier, too. It would add a certain dignity to the profession, I reckon.

Also on ABC television, I’ve heard people pronounce ‘comrade’ as ‘comrad’. For the past sixty or so years, I’ve said it to rhyme with ‘com-raid’, but an older English friend has always known it as ‘com-rad’. Dictionaries offer even more versions — it can also be ‘com-rud’, ‘com-red’ and ‘com-rid’. Behind all this is the fact that people in different countries, and also different regions within those countries, pronounce vowels in different ways.

In my house, for instance, I have rooms. An English friend who went to a public school has rumms. My Australian friends have rewms. And we remember that young English lad in the USA who applied for a job as a clerk. ‘What?’ said the American company manager, ‘You mean you wanna hang on a wall and go tick, tark, tick, tark?’

More surprises came in a broadcast of the ANZAC Day service. ‘Hearth’ was pronounced as ‘herth’ and ‘cacophony’ as ‘cacaphony’. My ‘com-rad’ English friend is a retired speech therapist. She has no idea where those pronunciations had come from.

TV weather reporters on our commercial channels come up with some remarkable forms of English. The other night, I heard that the waves on the bay in Melbourne would be ‘well and truly less than half a metre’ in height. That seems to be a very awkward turn of phrase. Not half as awkward, though, as a report on ABC television that Mr Zarqawi, in the Middle East, had ‘planned failed attacks’. Perhaps the reporter meant ‘attacks that subsequently failed’, as he would hardly have planned them to fail, would he?

© Copyright 2006 Brian Barratt


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