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Speaking about the Speaker

With all the turmoil in the House of Representatives over who will be the next speaker, several journalists and politicians have referred to the Speaker of the House as being third in line for the presidency.  That didn’t sound right to me, because that would mean that Barack Obama is first in line for the presidency, which makes no sense, because he is the president.  After hearing that expression, “third in line for the presidency,” again and again, I finally looked it up and assured myself that I was right, that the speaker is second in line for the presidency.

You might think that would be the end of it, that I would simply accept the fact that I was right and all those journalists and politicians were wrong.  But now I face the question as to how I will characterize the speaker’s position relative to the presidency should I happen to find myself in a conversation on that topic with others.  If I were sufficiently disdainful of the opinion of others, I would say it correctly, that the speaker is second in line.  But I am not, for as much as I hate to admit it, I do want the good opinion of others, and I would hate to have them talk about me after I was gone, saying, “He thinks he is so smart, but he doesn’t even know the speaker is third in line for the presidency.”  On the other hand, if I say it the way everyone else seems to, that the speaker is third in line, I might lose the good opinion of those few who know that is incorrect.  In other words, it is not enough to know the proper way to say something. You then have to decide what to do with the knowledge once you have it.

It should be noticed that this is not a dispute as to the facts, though it might appear that way at first.  The people who say the speaker is third in line are not mistaken as to the order of succession.  They know as I do that should the president die, he would be succeeded by the vice president, and should he be killed or incapacitated, the speaker would become president. This is a difference of opinion as to how to characterize the order of succession, not a difference as to what that order is.

One approach would be for me to announce that the speaker is not third in line, but only second in line, thereby making sure that everyone understands that I know the difference and that I am right.  But then I would be acting like a know-it-all, presuming to instruct others, hardly an endearing trait. Consider the case of Chris Matthews.  At some point along the way, he discovered that the correct way to pronounce Dick Cheney’s last name was \chee-nee\.  Now, I have seen Dick Cheney on television shows for years, and everyone always pronounces it \chay-nee\, and he never corrects them, either on the air or, presumably, before the broadcast.  So, Matthews apparently cares about this more than Cheney does.  But more to the point, Matthews did not have the courage to simply pronounce Cheney’s name the way he believed it should be pronounced, for fear we would all think he was an ignoramus.  Instead, he opted to instruct people on his show as to the proper pronunciation, even going so far as to express exasperation when they had the temerity to continue to pronounce it the way they wanted to.  In the end, Matthews, in his effort to display his superior knowledge on the subject, has only managed to make himself look ridiculous.

In short, instructing others first as a way of preempting criticism is a bad idea. It only makes things worse.  Matthews should have either pronounced it \chee-nee\ without apology, or he should have gone along with the way everyone else pronounces it and been done with it, which would by far have been the better choice.  After all, I’ll bet he pronounces Cicero \si-suh-ro\ and not \ki-kuh-ro\, regardless of how the famous orator actually pronounced his name.

In general, the dilemma is between being an elitist and capitulating to the masses.  There is a time to be pure and say the speaker is second in line for the presidency, and there is a time to capitulate and pronounce Cicero \si-suh-ro\. In the case of coup de grâce, for example, I do not hesitate to pronounce this \koo-duh-grahs\, even though most people pronounce it \koo-duh-grah\, leaving off the “s” sound.  I suppose they are misled in two ways.  First, their mispronunciation rhymes with coup d’état and foie gras.  Second, when they see the French word grâce, it reminds them of the English word “grace.” And they say to themselves, the French usually don’t pronounce the last part of their words, so the “s” sound should be dropped. However, they overlook the fact that in English, we have already dropped the last part of the word, known as the silent “e,” and so no more needs to be omitted in the pronunciation.  In any event, I pronounce the word correctly without hesitation or apology.

With the word “forte,” however, I begin to lose my nerve.  Back when I was in college, some fifty years ago, I learned that the word “forte” had two different pronunciations, depending on the meaning.  When the word means “strong point,” it comes to us from the French language, and thus should be pronounced \fort\; when the word means “loudly,” as a direction in music, it comes to us from the Italian language, and thus should be pronounced \for-day\.  In the last twenty or thirty years, however, I have noticed that most people pronounce the word \for-tay\ when using it to mean “strong point.”  I confess cowardice at this point.  I cannot bring myself to pronounce it that way for that meaning, and I haven’t the courage to pronounce it the way I originally learned to, for fear of sounding dumb. And so, I have dropped the word from my oral vocabulary. And would you believe, I just about cannot use it in my writing either, where you would think it wouldn’t matter, because as I write the word, I cannot help but struggle with the pronunciation in my mind, and I end up using some other expression instead.  In a similar way, I have struggled with “dilettante” and “archipelago,” for the etymology suggests one pronunciation while common parlance suggests another.

Now, there are language nihilists who say, “Languages change all the time, and so it really doesn’t matter.”  Well, the way I see it, speed limits continually change too, but that doesn’t mean we can drive at any speed we like.  At any given moment in time, there is a speed limit beyond which we are not supposed to go.  And so, at any given time, there is a right way and a wrong way to speak.  On the other hand, there is the old debate as to whether you should never go over the speed limit, or whether you should keep up with the prevailing traffic, even if that traffic exceeds what is posted on the sign.  I am a purist who says, “All those other people are going too fast, and they are in the wrong.”  People tell me that I probably cause traffic accidents by refusing to keep up with the prevailing traffic. And maybe they are right. I have heard a lot of tires squealing and metal crunching as I drive along the road, keeping to the speed limit, and I have seen the wrecks piling up in my wake. But that’s just too bad.  What’s right it right.  And so it is with my attitude about language. Still, there are times when I wonder if I should be keeping up with the prevailing ways of speaking, despite the rules.

I was at a country-western night club one night, doing the twostep.  On leaving the dancefloor, my dancing partner asked me, “Is that Jim over there?” to which I replied, “That’s he.”  I was immediately ashamed.  Sure, my answer was grammatically correct, but totally inappropriate. First of all, if I was going to be that formal, I should have said, “That is he.”  The informal contraction just did not go with putting the predicate nominative in the subjective case. More to the point, I should have said, “That’s him.” There is a way to dress and a way to dance in a country-western night club, and there is a way to speak in such a place as well, and formal English ain’t it.

A special case in the question as to whether to remain pure or to capitulate is when your teacher or your boss mispronounces a word.  When I was a junior in high school, my history teacher was talking about the Boston Massacre, which she pronounced \mass-uh-kree\.  I looked over at my friend Charles, and he looked back at me.  Other surreptitious looks were being passed back and forth around the room.  I went home and looked it up in my dictionary. Sure enough, that pronunciation was not even listed as an option.  But now I faced the dilemma: how should I pronounce the word if called upon to talk about the famous massacre in class? Fortunately, I was able to go between the horns of that dilemma by keeping my head down whenever the topic was being discussed.  One girl, however, gave a report on the subject, which she read to us while standing in front of the classroom.  The little ass-kisser pronounced it \mass-uh-kree\, no doubt scoring brownie points with the teacher, but earning the contempt and derision of everyone else in the classroom.

There is also the special, very special case of one’s significant other.  A long time ago, my then girlfriend was telling me about a friend of hers, who had impressed her with her impeccable English.  As an example, she said the woman referred to herself as an alumnus instead of “an alumni,” which some people mistakenly do.  Now, I would have been happy to let that pass, but I could look ahead in anticipation of the how the discussion would develop, and I could see that I needed to make a decision.  If I referred to the woman’s status regarding her having a degree in a different way, my girlfriend might think I was trying to correct her in a sly manner.  So, I decided to get it over with and said, “Actually, she would be an alumna.”  Big mistake.  It was the better part of a week before she would let me kiss her again, during which time I had ample opportunity to reflect upon the fact that that my love life would have been much better had I simply capitulated and referred to the woman as an alumnus the way she did.  It was better than “an alumni,” after all.

I could go on with a multitude of other examples that plague me, but you get the idea. Knowing the proper way to speak is only half of it. Knowing when to stop being pure and just go with the flow can be the more worrisome half of the problem.  Regarding the proper way to characterize the order of succession, however, I have definitely decided to remain pure.  If someone asks me who is third in line for the presidency, I’m going to say Orrin Hatch.

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