I’d Never Say Tomahto

If your friends are like you, it’s no wonder we ended up hosting a last-minute dinner party with a bunch of people who get all turned inside-out about how you pronounce words.

“What about forte?” John asked.

It depends, somebody else said.  Was he talking about the musical term, which was Italian — or the French word that means your strong point?  The first would be pronounced for-TAY, with a long a.  The second is just enunciated fort.  No second syllable, no vowel sound.  Think Fort Worth.

Yes, but, John kept saying.  “Nobody in the world pronounces the second word that way.  They all mispronounce it as for-TAY.  So how do you pronounce it?”

We don’t pronounce it, most of us said.  That’s because, if we used the word, we’d either pronounce it “fort” and have everybody think we were losers who couldn’t put together a long A sound — or for-TAY, which would pass muster with many people, but which we — and about five other people on the face of the earth — would know is wrong.  So — we ignore the word.  “What’s your strong point?” we might ask, instead.

Similarly, the country Chile.  It used to be pronounced chili.  Then a few Americans went there and came back speaking, very ostentatiously, about chee-LAY.  Which almost always elicited the response, “Oh!  Have you been to chee-LAY, too?  Didn’t you just love it?”

Oh, please.  If you want to play that game and throw around that particular affectation, you might as well pronounce France (short a) as Fraaaahnce (with an ah sound, as they do in both Paris and Par-ee).  I don’t know about you, but I’d find anybody but a French national to be a pompous lout if he went around talking about Fraaaahnce.  I wouldn’t even take the bait and ask him, “Oh!  Have you been to Fraaaahnce, too?”

I once spent about 15 minutes talking to a co-worker about Chile, which I insisted on pronouncing chili and she chee-LAY.  It’s remarkable how long a conversation like that can go on, without either of you pointing out that something strange is going afoot.  But we kept on talking, kept on ignoring it, each intent on her own preferred pronunciation and feeling sorry for the other deluded slob.

All of which usually leads to my own story about going to Chile, which involved a long plane ride next to a young Spanish-speaking woman who was quite nice.  The only problem was, she kept talking to me about “papa” and I got a bit tired of hearing about that.  How can anybody talk about a potato for an entire plane trip? I wondered.  How can anybody get that dazed, surreal glow about a common vegetable?  Was she trying to give me a new recipe or something?

As it turned out, “papa” has more than one meaning in Spanish and she’d been to see the Pope.  At the end of the flight, we said adios to each other and de(as they say in the airline industry)planed, she to chee-LAY and I to chili.

(Copyright 2008 by Ruth Pennebaker)

2 comments… add one
  • I say fort(e) and Cheelay. Also FebROOary. I’m so pompous.
    Did you know flaccid is properly pronounced flack-sid? I say that, too, but I try to put it in ironic implied air quotes.

  • Winston Link

    Just try putting chee-lay on the Pope’s potatoes and see what you get as penance!

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