Mind your language

Einstein vs Weinstein

21 October 2017

9:00 AM

21 October 2017

9:00 AM

Before I forget, I was cheered by the letter from Keith Aitken in last week’s issue noting another sense for tube (Mind your language, 7 October). ‘What are ye on about, ya tube?’ people shout as an insult in western Scotland, he says. He derives the term from the idea of their digestive functions dominating their lives, like tube-worms: just one big alimentary canal. I fear, though, that the origin lies in another bodily part. As Joyce wrote in Ulysses: ‘I suppose the people gave him that nickname [Mr de Kock] going about with his tube from one woman to another.’ Yes, tube in this slang sense means nothing other than ‘cock’, ‘prick’ or ‘wiener’.

Until I read the letter, my mind had been turning on matters of pronunciation, for halfway through an item on Australian flu on Today, my husband asked: ‘Did you hear that?’

I did. An articulate Australian flu expert said that things might go AWE-ry. He meant a-WRY. Awry is stressed on the second syllable, like agley, which is what Burns said that the best laid schemes of mice and men aft gang. Gley is ‘squinting’ and wry is ‘twisted’. So awry is ‘crookedly’.

I don’t blame the flu expert. Most intelligent people may stumble over some word known from print. More annoying is to pronounce words in defiance of their spelling. One often heard is grievious for grievous. A common error is grievious bodily harm, but Sunday by Sunday it also figures in the English version of the Catholic liturgy. ‘Through my most grievious fault,’ say sinners who should know better.

What then of people mispronouncing their own names? Clever Einstein got his right, but Harvey Weinstein falls at both fences, settling for wine, then tumbling into steen. Thirty years ago, the late William Safire attributed the prevalence of steen in American names to the influence of Yiddish, in which this initially became stain. From there it was but a step to steen.

It is not entirely an American trend, for Brian Epstein, the Beatles’ manager, pronounced his name Epsteen. His Yiddish-speaking ancestors were from Lithuania. Epstein was widely popular in his short life. Mr Weinstein seems to be thought a complete tube.

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