If there is honor in the lone defense of an unpopular cause, this is my proudest season. Every year this month I am reminded that I am an oddity, a misfit swimming against an overwhelming tide.
I am the last person in America to pronounce the first “r” in “February.”
Or so it seems about this time, when the conversational air fills with what to my ears is the ugly sound of the linguistic easy way out.
“Feb-yoo-ary.” The abomination is everywhere, coming from the mouths of friends, on TV and even on National Public Radio.
Holdouts in the “Feb-roo-ary” camp form a stubborn, curmudgeonly minority. Does anyone but us see that first “r” there? Does anyone but us care?
I take the matter somewhat personally, February being my birthday month. But it is a pointless crusade; the cause is already lost.
The problem is a linguistic phenomenon called “dissimilation.” When two identical or closely related sounds occur in close proximity, explained Brian Sietsema, pronunciation editor at Merriam-Webster, the tongue rebels - and sometimes changes one of the sounds.
February’s two “r’s” have been causing problems for centuries, he said. As far back as the 14th through 16th centuries, a common Middle English spelling of the word was “feverelle.”
“Febyooary” is thus “a natural type of reflex pronunciation,” says Sol Steinmetz, editorial director of Random House’s reference division.
Beyond the two “r’s,” Sietsema said, February labors under some “yoo” peer pressure from January.
The Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary awards top billing as preferred pronunciation to “Febyoo-ary,” albeit with a symbol denoting “variants that have been objected to over a period of time.”
“It is considered incorrect by several commentators, but it is used by the majority,” Sietsema said. “Wrong pronunciations become right over time when they’re perceived as being right by the general populace.”
And the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, while listing “Febyooary” second and acknowledging that such pronunciation is “sometimes criticized,” rules that it is used by educated speakers and considered standard.
You can find a dictionary that holds its ground, but you have to look hard. A musty 1901 British dictionary acknowledges the existence of the dissimilated Middle English form but doesn’t stoop to mentioning such variations as current possibilities.
Many honorable words have been changed by dissimilation, Sietsema said. Colonel has long been pronounced as if the first “l” were an “r,” and the laurel tree was originally a laurer until people decided it wasn’t.
Why not just change February’s spelling? It will never happen, predicted Steinmetz.
“The history in English is of great, great conservatism in spelling,” he said.
Numerous proposals for phonetic spelling systems have failed, he said. Moreover, it is only by spelling February correctly that one can see its etymology.
“February comes from the Latin word `februarus,’ which comes ultimately from `Februa,’ a feast of purification in Roman times that was held in the second month of the year,” he said.
So here I sit, standing firm with maybe a handful of schoolmarms and crotchety nitpickers. The dictionaries may wink, but I just can’t go along.
The “r” is there. I see it; I have to say it. To my hardy band of fellow tongue-twisters, I say this: It will soon be March.
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