"That's not my forte," I told a friend, purposely pronouncing the last word to rhyme with "port." My friend gave me a sidelong, pitying look. After an uncomfortable moment, she said, "You know, it's pronounced 'for-tay.' "
No, it's not. Or is it? According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, forte comes from the French "fort," pronounced "for" or -- if the object being described is feminine -- "fort," and means "strong." Forte (for-tay) is Italian for "louder." So "fort" is closer to the correct pronunciation and meaning.
But try to find someone in this country who says, "That's not my fort." In fact, so many Americans say "for-tay," that even though Merriam-Webster lists "fort" as the correct way to say the word, it also notes that "for-tay" is how most Americans say it.
This anecdote raises the question: If no one pronounces a word "correctly," then is that pronunciation really correct? (And how stupid does a person look when using a word "correctly" when no one else does?)
Here's a short list of words that people routinely pronounce "wrongly:"
• Arctic (it should be ARK' tik, not AR' tik).
• Eschew (EH shoo', not EE shoo').
• Espresso (ESS press' o, not EX press' o).
• Diphthong (DIFF' thong, not DIP' thong).
• Jewelry (JOO' wel ree, not JOOL' ur ree).
• Ribald (RIB' uld, not RY bald').
• Sherbet (shur' BET, not shur' BURT).
Then there are words that used to have one pronunciation, but now have yielded to the more popular pronunciation (at least with Merriam-Webster):
• Clothes (cloze, formerly clothz).
• Flaccid (FLASS' id, formerly FLAK' sid).
• Mauve (mawve, formerly pronounced to rhyme with rove).
• Orangutan (o rang' uh TANG, formerly o rang' guh TAN).
• Patina (puh TEE' nuh (in America, anyway), not PAT' innuh (still the first pronunciation in Britain).
• Vertebrae (ver' tuh BRAY, not ver' tuh BREE).
Nevertheless, there is no shortage of people willing to tell you (or should I say, "one") that one is mispronouncing words. "100 Most Often Mispronounced Words and Phrases in English" (http://grammar.yourdictionary.com/style-and-usage/mispron.html) is a good example.
Most of us can agree that the correct pronunciation of "ask" is not "ax." But how many of us would sound better educated saying "pernickety" instead of "persnickety?" "Long-lived" (with a long "i") instead of "long-lived" (with a short "i")? "Par lya ment" instead of "par le ment?"
And given the uncertainty of how people used to pronounce words, how reliable are the explanations for "correct" pronunciations? Is pernickety a "Scottish nonce word" (a word created to solve an immediate communication problem and not expected to recur) to which we ignorant Americans added a spurious "s," or are its origins more obscure, only possibly stemming from the Scots "pernicky?"
Your idea of how to pronounce a word depends on where you're from and how old you are. My elderly martinet of a third-grade English teacher insisted we pronounce the "wh" in words as "hw." She made us repeat "hwip" over and over again. The trouble is, few people in our part of the country said "hwip." Then again, she disabused us of our tendency to say "Feb-you-ary" and "probly," so she wasn't all bad.
In New England, "Mary," "marry" and "merry" have different pronunciations, as do "fairy" and "ferry," "Harry" and "hairy." In other parts of the country, there is one one pronunciation each for mare-y, fare-y and hare-y. Merriam-Webster agrees with the single pronunciation.
Dictionaries used to favor British pronunciations over American ones. Thus, pat'-innah over pa-tee'-nah and flak'-sid over flass'-id. On the other hand, sometimes the British pronunciation is listed second, as in the pronunciation of "aunt." That would be one's "ant," not one's "awnt." Sorry, New Englanders. (Not that knowing the "correct" pronunciation will change the way Bostonians refer to their parents' sisters.)
So be aware of its first pronunciation for words -- even if that's not how you say it.
Laura Malt Schneiderman ("Ms. Grammar Person") is a Web content producer for Post-gazette.com (email@example.com, 412-263-1923). First Published July 14, 2013 12:00 AM