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Would You Have Passed This 1920s Pronunciation Test?

It’s fair to say the English language can be a bit of a minefield at times. What else can you say about a language in which enough, cough, dough, bough, and through don’t rhyme with one another, or in which the plural of goose and mongoose are geese and mongooses? Come to grips with all those inconsistencies and you’ll still have to contend with the fact that English has a troublesome spelling system that permits a word like zoo, with its straightforward double-O spelling, to rhyme with hew, blue, to, you, lieu, coup, flu, two, through, queue, hoopoe, and bijoux. And add to that the fact that English also has probably the largest vocabulary of any comparable language on the planet, and the problems soon begin to stack up.

With all that in mind then, try reading this:

Penelope Cholmondely raised her azure eyes from the crabbed scenario. She meandered among the congeries of her memoirs. There was the Kinetic Algernon, a choleric artificer of icons and triptychs, who wanted to write a trilogy. For years she had stifled her risibilities with dour moods. His asthma caused him to sough like the zephyrs among the tamarack.

That is an announcer’s test—an intentionally challenging piece of prose once used to audition prospective radio announcers. This particular test is one of the oldest on record: According to I Looked And I Listened, the 1954 memoir of former New York Daily News radio columnist Ben Gross, this was in use back in the early days of American commercial radio in the mid-1920s, and was passed on to him by renowned New York radio announcer Phillips Carlin. It’s unclear precisely how the test would have been carried out, but given how later tests were organized, it’s likely that auditionees would have been given it cold, with little or no time to prepare beforehand.

So would you have passed it? Did any of those words trip you up? (If you found it easy, the 1951 NBC Handbook of Pronunciation has a much longer version for aspiring radio announcers to try at home.) Here’s what the dictionaries have to say about some of the trickiest parts of that passage:

Cholmondely (n.): Despite appearances, the surname Cholmondely/Cholmondeley is pronounced “Chumley,” according to the Cambridge English Pronouncing Dictionary.

Azure (n., adj.): Cambridge also lists no less than eight different pronunciations of azure, depending on whether the first or second syllable is stressed; whether the A is pronounced long (as in “bay”) or short (as in “bat”); and whether the Z is pronounced like the Z in zoo or like this “zh” sound in leisure or treasure. But if you’re looking for a job at NBC in the 1950s, they want it pronounced "AZH er."

Crabbed (adj.): Meaning “difficult” or “bad-tempered”; if you’re using it as an adjective, crabbed should rhyme with rabid, not jabbed.

Congeries (n.): In American English, congeries is pronounced with stress on the initial syllable, “CON-juh-reez,” whereas British English (and, oddly enough, NBC) prefers it on the second syllable, “con-JEER-eez.” Either way, if you’re not familiar with it, it might come as a surprise to find that congeries is a singular noun meaning “a disorderly collection” or “a heap.”

Algernon (n.): The boy’s name Algernon is stressed on the first syllable, but what you do after that is debatable: According to most English dictionaries, both “AL-jer-nun” and “AL-jer-non,” with a longer final syllable, are acceptable.

Choleric (adj.): Meaning “easily angered” or “bad-tempered,” choleric is stressed on the first syllable, “COL-uh-rick.”

Artificer (n.): An artificer is a skilled craftsman or mechanic. Although based around artifice, which is stressed on the initial syllable, artificer is usually stressed on the first I, “ar-TI-fi-ser.”

Triptychs (pl. n.): Ignore the H in that weird –tych ending, because triptych—namely a three-paneled artwork—rhymes with cryptic.

Risibilities (pl. n.): Risibility is laughter or laughableness, but in this case the word is often used in the plural to mean “an inclination to laugh.” It rhymes with visibilities.

Dour (adj.): In its native Scots dialect, dour is pronounced with a long “oo” sound, like that in wooer or bluer (this is NBC's preference), but most English dictionaries suggest that it should be pronounced like power or sour.

Sough (v.): Not even the dictionaries can agree on this one. Sough, a verb meaning “to moan or whistle like the wind through the trees,” can be pronounced either “suff” (NBC's preference) or “sow” (rhyming with cow).

Tamarack (n.): Another name for the eastern larch, and frequently used to mean several different larches, tamarack essentially rhymes with anorak, and is pronounced “TAM-uh-rack.”

Proving that there are really no right or wrong answers here—and that the prescriptivist rules of pronunciation that would have been so important in the 1920s have relaxed—it’s worth pointing out how many of these have two or more recommended pronunciations, or else are given different readings in different dictionaries.

Later announcers’ tests went even further. Prospective new talent at NBC in the 1930s, for instance, were reportedly tested with a list of foreign names, place names, and tongue-twisters, like “the seething sea ceased to see, then thus sufficeth thus.” And in the 1940s, announcers at Radio Central New York were given a list of 10 ever-lengthening and ever more complicated numbered sentences, which they were required not only to recite in a repeating sequence (1, 1-2, 1-2-3, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4-5 …) but from memory, and in one single, expertly controlled breath at a time:

One hen
Two ducks
Three squawking geese
Four limerick oysters
Five corpulent porpoises
Six pair of Don Alverzo’s tweezers
Seven thousand Macedonians, in full battle array
Eight brass monkeys from the ancient, sacred, crypts of Egypt
Nine apathetic, sympathetic, diabetic, old men on roller skates, with a marked propensity
towards procrastination and sloth
Ten lyrical, spherical, diabolical denizens of the deep who hall stall around the corner on the
quo of the quay of the quivvey, all at the same time.

Penelope Cholmondely and her memoirs suddenly don’t seem quite so difficult …

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How Often Is 'Once in a Blue Moon'? Let Neil deGrasse Tyson Explain
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From “lit” to “I can’t even,” lots of colloquialisms make no sense. But not all confusing phrases stem from Millennial mouths. Take, for example, “once in a blue moon”—an expression you’ve likely heard uttered by teachers, parents, newscasters, and even scientists. This term is often used to describe a rare phenomenon—but why?

Even StarTalk Radio host Neil deGrasse Tyson doesn’t know for sure. “I have no idea why a blue moon is called a blue moon,” he tells Mashable. “There is nothing blue about it at all.”

A blue moon is the second full moon to appear in a single calendar month. Astronomy dictates that two full moons can technically occur in one month, so long as the first moon rises early in the month and the second appears around the 30th or 31st. This type of phenomenon occurs every couple years or so. So taken literally, “Once in a blue moon” must mean "every few years"—even if the term itself is often used to describe something that’s even more rare.

[h/t Mashable]

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9 Grammatically Correct Gifts for Language Lovers
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Have a friend or relative who's quick to correct your typos? Give them a gift that celebrates their love of (grammatically correct) language.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of sales. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Good luck gift hunting!

1. THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE ILLUSTRATED; $12

William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White's extensive—and sometimes snarky—guide to grammar was published in 1920, but it's still considered a go-to for writing purists who are wary of change. The bookshelf staple, with a foreword by Roger Angell and updated with 57 colorful illustrations by Maira Kalman, is sure to offer up hours of education (which is entertainment to the language lover in your life).

Find It: Amazon

2. PENCILS; $9

These pencils will help keep common homophones straight. The retro sets of five are decorated with gold foil letters hand-pressed onto the sides. The Etsy store also offers up a set of red pencils that feature short, grammar-positive statements.

Find It: Etsy

3. QUOTE EARRINGS; $9

High marks: The delicate metal earrings are about a half-inch tall, making them a subtle but charming choice for any punctuation lover.

Find It: ModCloth

4. *YOU'RE NECKLACE; $24 AND UP

*You're necklace
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The pendant, which comes in the material of your choice, is dedicated to a well-known pet peeve amongst the literate.

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5. PUNCTUATION POSTER; $36

Everyone knows about the question mark and the semicolon, but what about the interrobang? This simple poster, available in three different sizes and 60 different colors, celebrates the punctuation that really helps writers get their point across. It's printed on satin luster paper with ChromaLife 100 inks, creating a long-lasting piece of artwork.

Find It: Etsy

6. SHADY CHARACTERS; $12

Keith Houston's book offers up a thorough look at the history of the written word. Readers can learn about the rich stories behind punctuation marks, including tales that cover everything from Ancient Roman graffiti to George W. Bush.

Find It: Amazon

7. AMPERSAND MARQUEE; $19

The ampersand is a divisive punctuation mark in writing, but it's widely loved in design; the attractive logogram can be found everywhere from wedding invitations to tattoos. This metal light stands at almost 10 inches, making it a nice statement piece in any home.

Find It: Amazon

8. POP CULTURE PARTS OF SPEECH; $29

Grammar is even more accessible with the help of beloved pop culture characters. ET, Robocop, Holly Golightly, Walter White, and more all come together to help teach tricky grammar terms. The poster is broken down into seven basic parts: nouns, verbs, adjectives, pronouns, adverbs, prepositions, and conjunctions.

Find It: Pop Chart Lab

9. OWL SHIRT; $15

Do you have a friend who's always correcting everyone with a stern "whom"? With the help of two owls, this shirt pokes light fun at two counterparts to the oft-neglected word. The lightweight, cotton shirt comes in a classic white with sizes for men, women, and children.

Find It: Amazon

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

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