Defining Moments: How Language Shapes Our Lives

Pronunciation problems

sprovost@thetribunenews.comMarch 20, 2014 

Steve Provost

Call it “reader’s ear.” Sometimes, it’s a tin ear.

Reader’s ear is an affliction suffered by those of us who gather most of our information by reading, as opposed to listening. We may see a word in print and think we know how to pronounce it, only to actually hear it spoken and find out we’ve been making fools of ourselves by mispronouncing the darn thing — sometimes for years.

An example: Until my college graduation day, I was convinced that the word posthumous was pronounced “pohst-HYU-muss” because I’d never actually heard it. Imagine my chagrin to find that it was actually pronounced “PAHSchuh-muss.”

A couple of weeks back, I was exposed to another pronunciation that made me question myself. The occasion was Adam West’s visit to the Fremont Theatre for the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival. My wife, Samaire (whose name, for the record, is pronounced Suh-MARE-uh), has been a fan of the actor since she was a little girl, so we got tickets for what turned out to be a thoroughly enjoyable evening. A documentary on West’s life was followed by a question-and-answer session with Batman himself.

At some point during the evening, I heard someone refer to the film as an homage to West. I knew the word that was being spoken, but I’d never heard it spoken in quite that way before. The person pronounced it “oh-MAZH.” Then, someone in the film itself used the same pronunciation.

What was going on here? Was this a case of reader’s ear blindsiding me at the ripe old age of 50?

Surely not. This was a word I’d actually heard vocalized before many times, just never in that fashion. I’d always heard it as “AHmij” (or occasionally, “HAmij).” Was I going crazy?

I had to find out, so I went online and discovered that, no, I wasn’t experiencing a late-onset case of reader’s ear, after all. There on the Merriam-Webster site was the pronunciation I’d grown up using. “oh-MAZH” was not even listed as a secondary option.

Webster’s New World Dictionary concurred.

It further informed me that the word was derived from the old French word hommage, referring to “a public avowal of allegiance by avassal to his lord.” It was related to the French word homme, meaning “man,” whose pronunciation I knew from my high school French classes: The “H” is silent, and the “O” is most certainly not long. (The resulting pronunciation is something like “uhm,” most definitely not “home” or “om.”)

So where the heck does “oh-MAZH” come from?

Is it just a case of folks wanting to sound more sophisticated by sounding more French?

In his book “The Accidents of Style,” Charles Harrington Elster states that “for some unfathomable reason, it is becoming fashionable among the literati and other complacent members of the better-educated crowd to pronounce the centuries-old English word homage as if it were a French loanword still wet behind the ears.”

Elster has it at least half-right. He’s mistaken in denying that the word has French roots, but he may well be right in identifying “oh-MAZH” as a recent affectation by English speakers trying to sound more French. It appears to be especially popular in artistic circles, which would explain its use at the film festival.

There is, it should be pointed out, a French word that does contain a long “O” sound that is similar to hommage. That would be fromage, which refers to cheese.

As near as I can tell, however, the proper pronunciation of the French root hommage should be something like “uhm-MAZH,” with only a slight accent on the second syllable and no long “O.”

Of course, it’s been more than three decades since those high school French classes, and I’ve never heard it pronounced by a native French speaker, so it may be another case of reader’s ear, after all.

Whether that’s the case or not, though, I’ll probably continue to think of the theatrical pronunciation of this particular word as (how shall I say it?) just a little … cheesy.

As George Takei would say, “Oh, my!”

SteveProvost is a Tribune copy editor.

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