Say What?

Gene Weingarten on

I considered appealing to my editor, Tom the Butcher, but Tom is no authority on pronunciation. He speaks like a man who grew up in the Land of the Lost Syllables. Tom takes his dog to the "vetinarian." He looks at his reflection in a "meer." In short, Tom is a complete idit. [Editor's Note: It is true that Gene pronounces "veterinarian" with the requisite six syllables, but he is so insufferably self-satisfied about it that it sounds as if it has 11 or 12. He also chews pens into a toxic goo. Just saying.]

I consulted the dictionary. It also indicates that the most common pronunciation of "what" rhymes with "gut," but that is the nature of dictionaries: They don't state what's right and proper; they merely record what the great unwashed legions of Americans are saying at any point in time. However, the actual editors of dictionaries tend to be learned and articulate people (unlike some other editors). So I phoned Michael Agnes, who edits Webster's New World College Dictionary. This is our conversation, verbatim:

Me: I have an important pronunciation question to ask, but first I need to express my outrage. When I was on hold just now, your voicemail told me: "If you know the extension of the person you wish to speak with, you may 'dial' it at any time … "

Michael: Ah.

Me: You see where I am going here …

Michael: Yes. Well, unfortunately, no dictionary has "punch in" yet as an idiom for what one does to a modern phone … No, wait, I see we do have it in, much to my pleasure! Definition two of "punch in" is "to feed (data), as into a computer, by pressing buttons or keys." You will notice the "as," which means what follows is a mere example, and a telephone would be another example.

Me: That's pretty weak.

Michael: Well, under "dial," I see we do say: "to call on a telephone by using a dial, a keypad, etc." So, keypad. We acknowledge it. This is the widening of an existing usable context, the metaphorization of words. Nothing at all wrong with it.

Me: If you say so. OK, let's get down to business. I assume you do not have your entire dictionary memorized?

Michael: At my age, I don't have my entire yesterday memorized.


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