Pronunciation Causes 'Utter' Confusion

Rob Kyff on

Pronunciation can be controversial and divisive. Phonology fanatics both lam-BAYST and lam-BAST their opponents, throw both tuh-MAY-tohs and tuh-MAH-tohs at them, and even threaten them with both HAHM-i-side and HOHM-i-side.

Aptly enough, even the pronunciations of "controversial" and "divisive" spark debate. While most experts prefer the four-syllable kahn-truh-VUR-shul and consider the five-syllable kahn-truh-VUR-see-ul to be pretentious, many of us add that extra "see" sound anyway.

The conventional delivery of "divisive" is di-VY-siv," but "di-VIS-iv" is quite common. Some blame the latter rendering on those oh-so-sophisticated Brits.

Let's get the tomato throwing started! The following words are much in the news lately. How would you pronounce them?

1. harassment -- HARE-is-ment or huh-RAS-ment

2. steroid -- STAIR-oyd or STEER-oyd or STER-oyd

3. xenophobia -- zen-uh-FOH-bee-uh or Zee-nuh-FOH-bee-uh

4. Moscow -- MAHS-kow or MAHS-koh

Answers and explanations:

1. The question of how to pronounce "harassment" is nearly as divisive as the behavior it denotes. Until the mid-twentieth century, the traditional pronunciation was "HARE-is-ment." But "huh-RAS-ment" is slightly easier to say, which may explain the current dominance of this pronunciation.

2. In terms of etymology, the argument for "STER-oyd" is strong. "Steroid" derives from the Greek root "ster (es), meaning "solid," and the suffix "--oid," meaning "resembling." The Greek "ster" also shows up in "cholesterol," where it's also pronounced "ster." But as steroid use in athletics began to rise during the 1970s, so did the pronunciation "STEER-oyd," which has now become dominant.

3. "Xenophobia" first appeared in print in 1919, and for most of the twentieth century, it was pronounced with an opening "zen" sound. But around 1975 -- those loosey goosey 70s again! -- Zee-nuh-FOH-bee-uh crept in and is now the more common rendering.

4. Journalists and scholars have been disPutin' this one for centuries. Americans are free to choose "MAHS-kow" or "MAHS-koh" (preferred by the Brits and American broadcasters). The Russians pronounce their capital city as "muhsk-VAH," "MOHSK-vah," or "mah-SKVAH" -- choices that favor neither side in the "koh/kow" debate, making this at least one American election the Russians are NOT meddling in. And, while there are "cow"boys in Idaho, the Moscow in that state is "MAHS-koh," pardner.


Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Conn., invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via e-mail to or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Copyright 2017 Creators Syndicate Inc.


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