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Say What?

Gene Weingarten on

EDITORS: This column was originally published in 2006.

WASHINGTON -- I am a "word person." My vocabulary is extensive, my command of grammar and syntax almost without error. I can accurately conjugate most any verb, including "to lie," which gets pretty complex in the pluperfect. I understand the difference between epistemology and hermeneutics.

And so it came as something of a surprise and shock to me the other day when I learned that I apparently do not know how to pronounce the word "what."

My friend and colleague Pat had asked my opinion of some limericks submitted by readers. One was quite good, but I observed that it had a serious flaw because it attempted to rhyme "what" with "gut."

"'Gut' and 'what' are a perfect rhyme," Pat said.

"WHAT?" I said.

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"No, 'whut,'" she said.

Pat is a professional copy editor. Frankly, I was stunned by her ignorance, which I attributed to her upbringing in Philadelphia, a town evidently containing only fishmongers, punch-drunk palookas and waterfront Mafia enforcers. I patiently explained to Pat that, used as intended, inflected in a sophisticated fashion, "what" rhymes with "squat."

To prove my point and humiliate my friend, I sent out a message to a dozen Washington Post copy editors. In the aggregate, they possess more than 170 years of professional copy editing experience, meaning that, when they collectively began to work in the word business, Herman Melville was writing chapter three of "Moby-Dick." These editors come from places as diverse as Los Angeles, Miami, Buffalo, Pittsburgh and Smyrna, Tennessee.

Every single one agreed with Put. I mean, Pat.

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