‘Electrocution chair?’ Is that like a ‘Holocaust center?’


Speaking of words, has anyone noticed an uptick of mispronunciations and bizarre word choices lately on broadcast media?

I’m not even talking about Donald Trump, who is so justly famous for such. I’m talking about normal people.

I should have been keeping a list of the mispronunciations, but at the moment I’m only thinking of one: My wife heard someone say “pre-VALE-unt” on the Tube the other day, instead of, you know, prevalent. (I called just now to ask her for another, and she offered “contri-BUTE,” as opposed to contribute. And yes, the Brits might say, “CON-tribute,” but as my wife noted, these were Americans speaking.)

As for word choice, my current fave is from Friday’s installment of “The Takeaway.” A perfectly lucid, intelligent-sounding young woman with Arkansas Public Media was being interviewed about the crowd of people that state is trying to execute. She was asked (at about 2:29 on the recording) whether, when it runs out of approved poisons for lethal injection, the state would have any alternative methods of administering death. She replied, informatively:

The alternative on the books is electrocution chair…

Electrocution chair? Is that something they have at “Holocaust centers?”

She was probably just nervous being interviewed on national radio. Either that, or — she sounded really, really young — she has been blessed by never having heard of that fixture of more barbaric times, the electric chair. (She may have even realized she wasn’t on solid ground, based on the questioning way her voice went up at the end of the phrase, as though she were asking, “Is that a thing?”)

Ultimately, I suspect all of this is a result of far too many people trying to say far too many things on far too many outlets in much too quick a hurry.

But maybe there’s another explanation…

28 thoughts on “‘Electrocution chair?’ Is that like a ‘Holocaust center?’

  1. Claus2

    It’s people like you that drive me crazy. This list… is this a hobby of yours? You may want to consider something more “asseptible”, like golf.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      GOLF?!?!? Slowly I turned

      Now you’ve touched on one of my really serious peeves. Not something you did, but something you reminded me of: “Golf” is a game, not a verb! A person does not “golf,” any more than he would “tennis.” You play golf; you play tennis.

      In fact, I think maybe my wife and I got onto this topic after I read this madness aloud to her over the weekend:

      The president who golfed too much (it’s not Donald Trump)

      In his first 88 days in office, President Trump went golfing 14 times — an average of once every 6.3 days. At that rate, he’ll end up golfing far more frequently than President Barack Obama, who golfed once every 9.5 days and whom Trump often criticized for spending too much time on the links….

      Yes, I’ll admit that I’m inconsistent; I contain multitudes. I accept “golfer,” as sounding better than “golf player,” and that implies that it could be a verb. But I just can’t go there, and it’s like fingernails on a blackboard when others do…

      And yes, I’m sure you can find authorities who support the execrable practice, just as you can find some to support “impact” as a verb. But saying it’s in the dictionary don’t make it right, boss

  2. Rose

    I’ve noticed some local reporters swallowing their “t” sounds in final syllables. For example, “important” becomes “impor-ant,” “completed” becomes “comple-ed.” I’ve backed up the video to make sure I heard it correctly. Very odd and irritating. They definitely need Burl’s elocution chair.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I’m trying to hear in my mind what you’re saying. I read “impor-ant,” and I hear either an African-American or working-class Englishman. For that matter, when I say it myself I don’t fully pronounce the first T, just as I don’t with “Clinton.”

      In fact, it drives me nuts when I hear people (usually broadcasters) overpronounce that T, saying “Clin-Ton.” To me, the proper thing is to kind of swallow the T, and skip over it lightly.

      But the opposite of overpronouncing it is to ditch it completely, and that’s worse. Near the start of my journalism career I worked in a rural bureau in Trenton, Tenn. The locals pronounced it “Trennon,” and that drove me nuts. And it seems like occasionally, I’ve heard someone say “Clinnon.” Give me the “Clin-Ton” over that…

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Even when the next town over from “Trennon” was “MILE-uhn,” which was the way they said, “Milan?”

          One can only go so far in deferring to local standards. I preferred labeling myself an outsider to saying “Trennan.”

          However — and it shames me to admit this — I did stoop to say “MILE-unh,” just in order to be understood. People understood perfectly well what I meant when I said “Trenton.” It pegged me as an outsider, but that was OK by me. I thought (back then, at least) that’s what journalists should be…

    2. Scout

      I think what you are hearing may be the use of a glottal stop in place of medial /t/, which does occur in Cockney English. Glottal stops don’t happen often in American English – but they do in “uh-oh” and “button”, for example. If you pay attention to what your mouth is doing when you say the word, the air is stopping at the level of your vocal cords (glottis) rather than with your tongue tip touching the ridge behind your teeth (as it does for /t/). That ridge is your alveolar ridge – /t/ is an alveolar stop. They both are voiceless stops and share a lot of acoustic characteristics, so your brain still gets the meaning without much thinking about it, even though you may notice the difference, as you did. I’ve noticed this too – it seems to be creeping into some American dialects, especially with younger people. I think it is happening more with words where the medial /t/ is followed by an /n/ or a /d/ which are also alveolar sounds. It may just be the ergonomics of not having to flap your tongue tip on your alveolar ridge twice in quick succession. I dunno, but I’ve noticed it too.

      1. Burl Burlingame

        Glottal stops are critical in proper pronunciation of Hawaiian words. We don’t spell it “Hawai’i” for fun.

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            Yes! The vocal fry!

            I recently heard a young woman on ETV that talked almost entirely that way, rather than just trailing off at the ends of sentences.

            Then again, maybe she had a medical condition.

            “Vocal fry” is one of those wonderful terms that when you first learn it — as I did, thanks to Alexandra Petri, in 2015 — you go, Yes! That’s been bugging me for years, and I didn’t know what to call it!…

            At the time, Alexandra also referred to uptalk, which you can hear with the young woman in this instance says “electrocution chair” — as well she might, under the circumstances…

          2. Brad Warthen Post author

            Then, of course, there’s the problem of beginning sentences with “So…” for no reason whatsoever.

            It’s used by younger people the way their elders used “Well…”

            It’s infectious enough that I’ve caught myself doing it as well. I can’t help it. I’m so tragically hip. I’ve just always been “with it,” ever since people actually said that without irony…

          3. Rose

            Oh, the vocal fry is horrible. Makes me think of sorority girls with their perfectly straightened hair, identical dress styles, and platform heels, blowing handfuls of glitter in the photos they have taken on the Horseshoe. Blech.

      2. Brad Warthen Post author

        When people say “glottal stop,” I always think of this scene from “A Hard Day’s Night.” You know, when Simon says, “You don’t have to do the old adenoidal glottal stop and carry on for our benefit…”

        And yes, I more or less have the film memorized…

  3. Scout

    Some local newsperson, when reporting how Dylann Roof has been moved to federal prison in some other state recently, repeatedly said the word “penitentiary” like it had 6 syllables – “pen-uh-ten-chee-air-ee”. I know I’ve heard others lately too, but that’s all I can think of right now.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Good one.

      There seems to be an awful lot of that sort of thing going around. As though the broadcast ranks were suddenly filled with people whose first language isn’t English, or… and this is a more likely explanation… with people who’ve never spoken English above a grade-school level, and therefore stumble over polysyllabic words.

      Here’s a theory… As younger people take broadcast jobs, it means we’re hearing from folks who have long preferred texting to speaking. So they haven’t had as much experience saying the words they know out loud.

      From a lifetime of reading and writing, I know quite a few words that I’m uncertain how to pronounce (such as “dishabille,” or “inchoate”). But I may have spent more time saying things out loud than the texting generation.

      I don’t know; just a thought.

      Oh, and by the way, before you dismiss the old guy — I’m quite an adept texter. I have to be, to communicate with my kids.

      Which can be maddening. One goes back and forth for 10 minutes to settle something that could have been dealt with in 30 seconds via voice.

      It’s like we’re back to the days of our grandparents and great-grandparents, when a telegram was preferred (but only because it was cheaper) to a long-distance phone call…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        By the way, I badly flunked this quiz just now, testing ability to pronounce words — missing both “dishabille” and “inchoate.” It was multiple choice, and I kept starting to choose one answer, then overthinking it and choosing another — only to find the right one was my first choice.

        So maybe I know more that I think I know about how to pronounce these words….

      2. Scout

        I spent way too long in my life thinking that “melancholy” was pronounced “muh-LANK-a-LEE” because I’d only ever read it and said it in my head.

      3. Norm Ivey

        The first time I had to read the word Amazon out loud in class, I said “Amazin” because although I had heard the word before, I had never seen the word and heard it pronounced at the same time.

        Although it’s not quite the same thing, I (and my children), for some odd reason, pronounce “bury” so that it rhymes with “hurry.”

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          I liked that little New York Public Library quiz I linked to, because when I saw that, I realized that I wasn’t the only person who, well into adulthood, didn’t know how to pronounce “misled.”

          This is one of the most embarrassing stories I tell about myself.

          Usually I’m pretty analytical about words. I like breaking them down and learning, or figuring out, where they came from. This may be a result of speaking Spanish as a child and taking two years of Latin (and a little German, which gave me a lot of insights into English) in high school, but I think I would have enjoyed digging into the structures and backgrounds of words anyway.

          But on “misled,” I was totally off my game for decades. For whatever reason, it didn’t occur to me that it came from “mislead.” I thought it was an original word in its own right, and that it had some vague common background with “miser,” and was therefore pronounced “MIZE-uld.”

          Then one day, I heard someone say the word while I was reading is, and it was one of the biggest “DUH” moments of my life. I was like, “mis-led… of course!” I couldn’t believe how I’d missed the obvious, but I had.

          Anyway, I took that quiz, and felt so much better when I saw it offer “MIZE-uhld” as one of the multiple choices (the wrong one, of course) for pronouncing the word.

          That told me I wasn’t the only idiot on the planet who made that mistake…

          1. Norm Ivey

            I missed terpsichore, but that’s one of those words that I probably have always skipped over because it was unknown, and unlikely to be used by me, ever. If experience holds true, now that I know it, I’ll see it a few times in the near future. It’s not that it’s being used more, I’ll just pay attention to it now.

            In one approach to teaching vocabulary, words are ranked Tier 1, Tier 2, and Tier 3. Tier 1 are common words that everyone learns just from use (dog, read, beer). Tier 2 are words that are likely to be encountered only very occasionally, and lack of understanding them will have little impact (terpsichore, dishabille). Tier 3 words are the content-specific words. In your career, those might be words like lede, hed, and masthead. (I had to use Google to find some examples). It’s the Tier 3 words that require the greatest direct instruction.

            1. Norm Ivey

              I got “quixotic” correct, but I confess I read it as key-AH-tic for years–like “chaotic”, but with a long E sound. It my head it still sounds like that.

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