Demi-Semi-Literally: Who Pronounces the “t” in Often?

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Increasingly I hear speakers on NPR pronouncing the “t’ in “often.” I surmise they think this mispronunciation makes them sound more educated.

For three centuries authorities have rejected the pronunciation AWF-tin. The renowned British lexicographer H.W. Fowler wrote, “The sounding of the ‘t’ in often is practiced by two oddly consorted classes—the academic speakers who affect a more precise enunciation than their neighbors and the uneasy half-literates who like to prove that they can spell.”

Yet once the professional classes in America believe that sham pedantry can enhance their prestige, the battle is lost. Everyone in the next generation will say AWF-tin. I expect these poseurs will also pronounce the “t” in glisten, soften, listen, castle, fasten, christen, and Christmas.

Ever since its founding document proclaimed that “all men are created equal,” the supply of status in America has been inadequate. Any method to appropriate distinction, even though mispronunciation, will flourish. Thus, useful British words that stressed the first syllable, such as exquisite and lamentable, were Gallicized into the melismatic ex-QUIZZZZZZZ-it and la-MEEEEENT-abIe.  So sophisticated. So refined. So continental.

Similarly, the pronunciation of forte has changed from fort to for-TAY, a word that does not, irregardless, exist.  Forte (pronounced fort) is a French word meaning strength. Forte (pronounced forty, as in pianoforte) is an Italian word meaning strong or loud. When one says, “that is not my for-TAY,” one is saying “that is not my strong.” Not strong.

In their hopeless quest for eminence Americans now change the meaning of words. They have literally turned the word “literally” on its head. The word is now used to mean figuratively, as in, “I literally was in seventh heaven.” Speakers believe this usage makes them appear cultured and literary.

Here in Seattle such problems demand a progressive political solution. I suggest that Biden’s stimulus plan tap into our National Strategic Status Reserve and distribute 650 rations of status to under-prestiged Americans who pronounce the “t” in often and confuse “literally” with “figuratively.” Equitably distributed, bien sur.

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Steve Clifford, the former CEO of KING Broadcasting, has written humor for Crosscut.com and the Huffington Post. He is the author of "The CEO Pay Machine."

5 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you. The usage of the English language among reporters is deplorable and slang ridden. I cringe when I hear them albeit TV, radio etc. Do they not hear themselves!

  2. Those awf-T-ners are the same people who insist on referring to “THE Phew-git Sound” and “THE Five.” Wish they’d model their speech after the natives who don’t sound as if they have been gargling with green persimmons.

  3. A fine and funny piece – thanks! A great way to start the week, you should post every Monday.

    And to boot, Mr Fowler is/was a longtime favorite in our family. Glad to see that he’s not quite all forgotten.

    What about people who say We’d-nez-day, by the way? Any thoughts on the matter? Or is it only a regional oddity, perhaps peculiar to East Anglia?

  4. This is all very concerning. Hopefully, at the end of the day, the pols, pundits and plebes will find an opportunity to dialogue about this and workshop a path toward innovating a solution so that this pivotal moment in time can serve as an inflection point as well as a teachable moment that will positively impact all of us. A light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak. A new beginning.
    On the other hand, I recognize and even celebrate the fact that the language has been going her own way, doing her own thing, and hanging out with the worse sort of riffraff for much longer than any of us has been alive, without caring whether or not she has my permission or yours. Even Fowler was willing to recognize this and loosen up on that never-end-a-sentence-with-a-preposition rule. And relative newcomers to the battle, such as Mary Norris and Benjamin Dreyer, are advising us to remain calm about it. For the most part, I do. But if people don’t stop describing really, really terrible events as “concerning,” I’m going to throw my TV out the window. I swear to goddess, this epidemic of euphemism and verbicide will be the end of me. And possibly, of anyone foolish enough to stand outside my window during the evening news shows.

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