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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.

"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.

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.

Me: OK, without referring to your dictionary, please tell me how you personally, Michael Agnes, professional lexicographer, pronounce the word W-H-A-T.

Michael: I aspirate the w, but in the course of a sentence it can be reduced to a vowel with a full-word stress.

Me: So that would be?

Michael: Hwut or wut. It rhymes with "rut."

Me: Auuuugggh.

Michael: That is not in the dictionary. "Aargh" is, on our very first page, on the bottom of column one. "Used to express disgust, nausea or any other forceful negative reaction."

Me: Aargh.

Michael: Splendid.

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Gene Weingarten can be reached at weingarten@washpost.com. Follow him on Twitter, @geneweingarten. Chat with him online Tuesdays at noon Eastern at www.washingtonpost.com.

(c) 2017, The Washington Post Writers Group

 

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