What's the Correct Pronunciation of February?

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iStock

In the United States, the most common pronunciation is feb-yoo-air-ee. Both Merriam-Webster and American Heritage dictionaries consider the common pronunciation correct, along with the less common, more traditional standard feb-roo-air-ee.

This gets fans of the traditional standard all worked up. But the loss of the first r in February is not some recent habit propagated by lazy teenagers. People have been avoiding that r for at least the last 150 years, and probably longer than that. Given certain conditions having to do with word stress and the other sounds in a word, we simply do not like to have two r's so close to each other. The name for the linguistic process where one sound drops out because another of the same sound is too close to it is dissimilation, and it affects lots of languages.

Consider your pronunciation of the following words, and be honest about whether you really say the r's in parentheses: su(r)prise, gove(r)nor, pa(r)ticular, be(r)serk, paraphe(r)nalia, cate(r)pillar, southe(r)ner, entrep(r)eneur, p(r)erogative, interp(r)etation. Not everybody drops these r's, but at the same time, nobody seems to get too upset when they hear others do it.

There are, however, a few cases of r dissimilation that get people very worked up, namely, lib(r)ary and Feb(r)uary. Lib(r)ary attracts attention due to its association with commonly disparaged dialects. Feb(r)uary only seems to attract attention when someone asks what the proper pronunciation should be.

Here's a little help from the (parody!) guide Pronunciation Manual:

What Causes Red Tides?

William West/AFP/Getty Images
William West/AFP/Getty Images

Every once in a while, the ocean turns the color of blood and scores of dead fish rise to the surface. The phenomenon might look like a biblical plague, but the source is far more mundane. It's just algae.

Red tides occur when there’s a sudden population boom among specific kinds of algae, which in enormous quantities become visible to the naked eye. They occur all over the world. In the Gulf of Mexico, the culprit behind red tides washing onto coastlines from Texas to Florida is usually a type of microscopic algae called Karenia brevis. It produces toxic chemicals that can cause symptoms ranging from sneezing and eye irritation to disorientation, vomiting, and breathing difficulties. It's often fatal for fish, shellfish, turtles, and other wildlife.

The water appears red because of the particular depth at which the algae live. Light waves don’t penetrate seawater evenly, and certain wavelengths travel farther than others. The algae that cause red tides grow at depths that absorb green and blue frequencies of light and reflect red ones.

Not all algal blooms are red; some are blue, green, brown, or even purple. Nor do all algae harm humans or animals. Why and how certain species of algae multiply like crazy and wipe out entire swaths of marine life is still a scientific mystery.

The worst red tide on record occurred in 1946, when a mass of algae stretching for 150 miles along the Florida coastline killed more than 50 million fish, along with hundreds of dolphins and sea turtles. Tourists shied away from the beaches as the bodies of dead sea creatures washed ashore. Smaller incidents are more common, but just as costly. In the past decade alone, fishing and tourism industries in the United States have had an estimated $1 billion in losses due to red tides—and the cost is expected to rise.

Editor's note: This story, which originally ran in 2015, was updated in August 2018.

Why Do So Many Diners Look Like Train Cars?

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iStock

No matter how many fine dining options you may have in your area, there’s something about sitting down in a diner that can’t be matched. Their menus are models of American comfort food, from meatloaf to patty melts. The coffee cups are bottomless. There’s usually a toothpick dispensary at the register.

Many diners across the country have one additional identifying trait: They’re shaped like a train car, a sleek and narrow compartment that looks like it belongs on a set of tracks. When and why did this style choice become synonymous with diners?

In a piece for Atlas Obscura, Anne Ewbank shed some light on the practice. The early 20th century saw a rise in entrepreneurs who were interested in meeting the need for casual dining establishments for people hurrying to or from work. Their ambitions had evolved from the lunch wagons of the late 1800s, which provided shelter from weather by putting up awnings or letting people sit inside on stools.

City ordinances, however, made such operations a little tricky: Many food wagons needed to be permanent fixtures in order to avoid the narrow operating hours mandated by communities. Rather than hire a contractor or lease an existing commercial space, people opted to order prefabricated, mobile carts that could be shipped to their location by rail or towed by truck. These dining cars became known as “diners.”

Like the pop-up locations of today, the diners could appear virtually overnight. Most were delivered in one piece; others were modular, requiring minimal assembly, and could offer a greater variety of styles and seating capacities. For small business owners, their affordability and convenience made it possible to strike out on their own. Some manufacturers even offered to repair fixtures by having the diner shipped back to the factory.

The look became so intertwined with fast-dining that some owners recycled old train cars to capture the aesthetic. Today, even diners built from scratch often mimic the narrow, elongated shape so familiar to patrons—a design now borne out of choice rather than necessity. It's a curious bit of history, and one worth pondering the next time you grab a toothpick.

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