Monday, 28 June 2010

Mo Tay For No Thing


I am in a funk, gentle reader, a terrible funk. It's about my pronunciation, which I've just discovered to be abominable. It has been abominated. And the abominater is no less a deity than P.G. Wodehouse himself. I quote tearfully:

Many lyricists rhyme as they pronounce, and their pronunciation is simply horrible. They can make "home" rhyme with "alone," and "saw" with "more," and go right off and look their innocent children in the eye without a touch of shame.

It pains me dreadfully to admit this, but I have always pronounced "saw" to rhyme with "more" (or versa vice). Indeed, I move in such reduced social circles that I have never heard anyone pronounce it any other way.

The OED suggests that the word used to be pronounced mo, but doesn't make clear when this stopped, or was shooed off to the ghetto where it still survives in film titles like Mo' Money.

A Receipt to Cure the Vapours by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu starts like this:

Why will Delia thus retire,
    And idly languish life away?
While the sighing crowd admire,
    'This too soon for hartshorn tea.

Because in the Eighteenth Century tea was pronounced tay. Just as in Pope's Epistle to Miss Blount the lonely girl will:

... pass her time 'twixt reading and bohea,
To muse and spill her solitary tea.

Bohea being a kind of black tea that was pronounced bohay.

To go further back into the fogs and sea frets of time, Shakespeare wrote a very odd sonnet about the goddess Nature creating a woman, falling in love with it and attaching a penis. The penis meant that Shakespeare was therefore Not Interested.

And for a woman wert thou first created
Till Nature as she wrought thee fell a-doting
And, by addition, me of thee defeated
By adding one thing, to my purpose nothing.

Which is an odd little rhyme to us, as the pronunciation was no-thing, which makes perfect etymological sense. Once upon a time (allegedly), Ben Jonson (the poet, not the sprinter) was composing his own epitaph in a tavern. He began:

Here lies Ben Jonson
That was once one

Then he asked Shakespeare to finish it off. Will wrote:

Who while he lived was a slow thing,
And now, being dead, is nothing.

Now go and read this poem on pronunciation.

Here runs Ben Johnson
Whose foolish nonchalance on
Doping made him a fast thing
And now, forgot, he's a past thing.

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