I grew up believing that the first President of the United States was George Worshington. Oh, I knew it wasn’t spelled that way, but that was how I said it. Similarly, I knew my home was equipped with a worsher and dryer, which we used to launder all of our clothes and linen, including the worshcloths. I inherited this peculiar dialectical preference and used it for years without the slightest notion that it was a deviation from standard English. Then one day, in the midst of questioning every other facet of my adolescent existence, I realized that there was no justifiable reason to pronounce wash as worsh, and I was appalled. I had been betrayed by my upbringing, tarred with a rube’s tongue, and I vowed to eradicate the vulgarism from my speech at once. It took a few weeks of consciously correcting my bad habit, a learning curve akin to knowing how to use a foreign phrase with the aplomb of a native, but I eventually became forever worsh-free.
The transformation led me to tackle other linguistic abominations as they became apparent to me. I began to enunciate all four syllables of interesting in an effort to combat the gross contraction intresting. I put the first r back into library. I even started adding a g at the end of progressive verbs. Yet I was not a budding usage curmudgeon. I found no pleasure in the superiority of the language police. I simply noticed things that made no sense to me and adjusted my speech accordingly.
Unfortunately, I also developed a smug prejudice against people who either spoke improperly, as judged by yours truly, or whose accent corresponded to any backwoods stereotype. Never mind that I exhibited many linguistic traces of my Midwestern origin, I was convinced that dialects different than my own were simply inferior. This is why it is important for young people to meet a good variety of folks with diverse backgrounds of varying education and income levels. I had to have my ego taken down a few pegs before I could acknowledge the arbitrariness of our language standards, enabling me to observe that one’s manner of speech is not a reliable indicator of intelligence. I am ashamed to have once dismissed the intellect of people simply due to their inherited dialects.
Nevertheless, I continue to refine my own speech, not out of snobbery but rather in the effort to excise those oddities that I have persisted in uttering only because I have always said them that way. A borderline example of this is my use of the word coupon.
It came as a revelation to me when I realized, several years ago, that not all of the United States refers to the ubiquitous money-saving certificates that fill the Sunday newspaper supplements as kyoo•pons. Admittedly, this variation that I have spoken for nearly all of my life appears in my dictionary as an alternate pronunciation. The standard koo•pon, however, is listed first. As my ears began to discern the difference and I noticed the koo syllable employed by such reputable authorities as public radio commentators and television commercial narrators, my psyche went into defensive mode, and I rebelled initially. I regarded koo•pon as elitist, an affectation muttered while drinking tea with pinkie aloft by the very sort of prude who would never condescend to use crass discounts in the first place.
But then I began to think it over, and I couldn’t come up with any other word in which ou is pronounced as yoo. On the other hand, words like troupe and coupe employed the oo sound. This provoked the thought that the only reason I had for pronouncing coupon as kyoo•pon was that I was raised to say it that way, a dubious rationale. I concluded that kyoo•pon was therefore another colloquialism to toss onto the verbal scrap heap.
I have learned not to be cocky about usage proficiency, as it’s never too late to get one’s comeuppance. One of my chronic mispronunciations went unchecked for nearly four decades before I was gobsmacked by an educational worksheet that listed our and hour as a homophone pair. That could not be, according to my fragile worldview, because I knew our to be a homophone of are. In fact, I had the dictionary to back me up. Only I didn’t. To my chagrin, I discovered what mincemeat I had been making of sentences like, “These are our options.” What’s worse, I still can’t quite get my head around this unpleasant reality. I have to make a determined effort to pronounce our properly, and it feels so unpleasant to my palate that I inevitably revert to my old habit. Sometimes I’ll issue the mental directive, “Just say hour,” but too much metacognition gums up whatever I was trying to say in the first place. Like a verbal scar, it keeps me humble.
Humility is an asset in the education profession, as it fosters patience with peculiarities and tolerance of differences. In my first year of teaching, I was thrown by some regional dialect that was new to me. It started when someone asked me for some crowns. Baffled, I paraphrased the request, only to have my inquirer nod enthusiastically. I must have looked absolutely idiotic as I stood there before my young charge, who looked at me expectantly while waiting for me to produce a box of crayons. Finally my overloaded brain recognized a colloquial contraction. Why bother with the time and effort of enunciating cray and on when the one-syllable crown is available?
Even stranger to my ears was the use of the term collar to specify hue rather than shirt style. Really, it’s not so different from standard pronunciation, merely substituting a short o for a short u. However, when a kid is trying to tell you what color crayon he wants and your head is dancing with Victorian tiaras and neck ruffles, it can be confusing. These children recognized two homophone pairs that I never knew existed. For them, it was possible to issue the directive, “Collar the king’s crown with the same crown you used for his collar.”
The kids I taught that year are adults now. I suspect the students who collared with crowns will have their own revelation some day, if it hasn’t happened already. Perhaps it will occur when they are caring for their own children. They’ll be watching their little one scribbling away at a coloring book. Their eyes will absentmindedly wander across the box of Crayolas, and suddenly they’ll utter, “Wait a minute…”