Words R us

In 1966, Walter Cronkite made the cover of Time magazine. But he still couldn’t pronounce “February.” Photo Robert Vickrey.

I know Walter Cronkite did it and that made it OK. Walter Cronkite, the CBS TV news anchor from the early 1960s until 1981, was once considered “the most trusted man in America.” But just because he was most trusted didn’t make him the most correct. He still couldn’t pronounce the name of the second month on the calendar. All those years ago he still closed his show this way:

“And that’s the way it is, this Thursday, Febuary 7, 1963,” he’d say in his sign-off. “This is Walter Cronkite for CBS Evening News. Good night.”

But sorry Walter, it’s February, not Febuary. The fact of the matter is, Cronkite wasn’t really the most trusted man in America. It’s just that an opinion poll, conducted in 1972 by U.S. securities firm Quayle & Co., to rank some of the day’s prominent people – Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew, for example – tossed in Cronkite’s name and not surprisingly, Cronkite came out on top. And so to enhance their anchor’s high ranking, didn’t CBS tag its coverage of the 1972 election campaign: “Choose Walter Cronkite, the most trusted man in America.”

That’s not the point of my column, however. But this being the first week of February (with an “R”) allows me to fly into one of my periodic rants about how we are murdering the English language in usage, pronunciation and meaning. Right at the top of my list are the sportscasters seen and heard on some of our national networks – broadcasters who should know better. These are (supposedly) educated men and women who say such things as:

“Can you believe the amount of people in the stadium today?” Or, “Based out of the University of Connecticut, and wearing No. 22, Rudy Gay!”

Amount of people? It makes the spectators attending the Super Bowl last Sunday the equivalent of Cheerios poured into a cereal bowl, not a finite number of people. They should refer to the size of the crowd as “the number of people” in attendance. And, based out of? Well, perhaps “based in Connecticut,” or “from Connecticut.” But “based out of” makes it seem as if Gay was abusively smacked around and booted out of the University of Connecticut by someone wielding the First Base bag from a softball game.

Next on my hit list are the news and traffic reporters who cannot pronounce the 23rd letter of the alphabet – Double-ue. Instead, they massacre the abbreviation of the Queen Elizabeth Way (that extends from the west end of Toronto to the Niagara peninsula). They insist on describing crashes, back-ups and delays on the east or westbound “Q.E. Dubb-ya,” the way we used to imitate pronunciation of President George Walker Bush’s middle initial. Or worse, as if they were speaking baby talk, as in “Q.E. Dubb-ue.”

Then, there are the words people simply abuse out of ignorance. Yes, there is such as word as “obligated,” meaning “to bind morally or legally.” But the more appropriate word is “obliged.” Similarly, there is no such word as “irregardless,” except that people use it because they think it’s more emphatic than a simple “regardless,” which is the correct way to say “with no heed or care.”

Now, in fairness, those who use “inflammable” and those who use “flammable” are both correct when referring to something easily set on fire. However, the key to choosing the more appropriate term is that the negative of “flammable” is “non-flammable,” not “non-inflammable.” By the time you got that last one out of your mouth, the gas can and anything within a hundred yards of it would have burned to a crisp.

And while we’re into supersizing your superlatives, there is no such thing as “really unique.” It’s either unique (one of a kind) or it’s not.

Finally, there’s the story of a bunch of rather ignorant (a.k.a. illiterate) vigilantes on the rampage through a small community in Wales. About a dozen years ago, Britons were riled up by the sensational newspaper, the News of the World, publishing photos of alleged sex offenders. Overnight, a number of paediatricians in the Welsh town found themselves the object of vigilantes’ anger. Among other things, the mobs spray-painted the doctors’ doors and windows with the word “paedo,” an abbreviation for the British spelling of “paedophile.” Yvette Cloete, one of the doctors who fled her home, couldn’t believe the vandalism or the misunderstanding. At the time she was a prominent specialist in paediatric medicine at the Royal Gwent Hospital.

“I suppose I’m really a victim of ignorance,” she told the press.

All this suggests a number of things. People don’t read nearly enough anymore. It also suggests we’ve thrown away our dictionaries or our pride in speaking with clarity. And whom should we blame? Among other things, smart phones, the absence of grammar and spelling instruction in school curriculum or maybe our love affair with the 140-character Twitter-verse.

Me? I blame the trusted Mr. Cronkite for dropping the “R” in February.


One comment:

  1. In quibbling with the late Walter Cronkite and others, Prof. Barris — himself a former newscaster of considerable renown — reminds me of a couple of other network anchors: the CBC’s retired pronunciation guru, Judy Maddren, and NBC’s late, legendary guardian of proper grammar, Edwin Newman. You’re in good company, professor! Thank you for keeping those of us tempted to take shortcuts with our tongues and typing fingers on the straight-and-narrow!

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