A Word About Words

Sign with bad punctuation

Some of us blanch and others merely wince when in the company of people who consistently misuse or mispronounce words. Having said that, there are books devoted to malapropisms and the people who use them can be, unwittingly, quite entertaining. I once had several customers in the NYC area with whom it was difficult to have a serious conversation without smiling or exploding coffee across the table at their unexpected pronouncements. I trained myself to limit my incredulity to a raised eyebrow. Angry with a business decision I had made, which adversely affected one customer’s business, red faced with rage barely under control, he pointed his finger at me and warned that “every worm has his day” and searching for the proper ending, added “... and turns” which he did and walked away. On another occasion he shared his glee that he had outwitted the city council from whom he was seeking a special permit. “Yes,” he said, mixing two popular sayings “they didn’t know it but I had an ace up my hole”. I still wince at the thought.

Three years ago, in Monterey, I was standing against a barrier looking over the finalists for the top prizes of the day. A nearby TV crew was shooting footage for their report and rehearsing their lines for the upcoming interview with the winner. The announcer’s interview with the winner was to be broadcast live to the large Pebble Beach crowd surrounding us. His pronunciation of the title of the event “Pebble Beach Concours de Elegance” was simply wrong. While many wouldn’t notice or care, someone certainly would and that might be embarrassing. When they halted for a break I introduced myself, told them I was French, and suggested that I might help with the pronunciation of some of the names of French cars and other French words they would need to navigate. They confessed that they had no idea how to pronounce the French words and welcomed my help. We went over some of the more difficult French car names such as Delage and Avion Voisin and then on to the title of the event. I explained that in French when a word beginning with a vowel is preceded by a preposition ending with a vowel, the preposition would lose its vowel and an apostrophe would replace it. de Elegance, two words, would become d’Elegance and would be pronounced as though it were one word, “delegance”.

“Concours”, means simply “contest” in French; it has replaced “auto show”. Recently, a popular Concours got its title correctly but got carried away with the concept and announced they also had a “Concours d’Gourmet”. This is more jarring to the eye than the ear. It should have been spelled “de Gourmet” since “G” is not a vowel and the previous rule does not apply. These are the annoying little things that drive organizers nuts.

For instance, Le Mans is simply French for “The Mans”. It is two words and when used in the context of the title of “The 24 Hours of …” race both words should be capitalized. It is never “Lemans” or “LeMans”. These misspelling must be galling to the people who spend huge sums promoting Le Mans on posters and magazines. Le Mans is the nearest town and the capital of a region known as the Sarthe. The name comes from the title it was given in 47 BC when captured by the Romans. They named it Ceromanus which eventually became “Celman” and “cel” which means “this” or “that” and was eventually replaced by “le” the French word for “the”. Hence, Le Mans. The 24 hour race in French is called Les 24 Heures du Mans. Literally: The 24 Hours of Mans.

These are some of the more common errors that catch the English eye and ear. I can only imagine what native Germans and Italians write about how we mangle their language.