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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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Something Something Soup Something
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language
This Game About Soup Highlights How Tricky Language Is
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Something Something Soup Something

Soup, defined by Merriam-Webster as "a liquid food especially with a meat, fish, or vegetable stock as a base and often containing pieces of solid food," is the ultimate simple comfort food. But if you look closer at the definition, you'll notice it's surprisingly vague. Is ramen soup? What about gumbo? Is a soy vanilla latte actually a type of three-bean soup? The subjectivity of language makes this simple food category a lot more complicated than it seems.

That’s the inspiration behind Something Something Soup Something, a new video game that has players label dishes as either soup or not soup. According to Waypoint, Italian philosopher, architect, and game designer Stefano Gualeni created the game after traveling the world asking people what constitutes soup. After interviewing candidates of 23 different nationalities, he concluded that the definition of soup "depends on the region, historical period, and the person with whom you're speaking."

Gualeni took this real-life confusion and applied it to a sci-fi setting. In Something Something Soup Something, you play as a low-wage extra-terrestrial worker in the year 2078 preparing meals for human clientele. Your job is to determine which dishes pass as "soup" and can be served to the hungry guests while avoiding any items that may end up poisoning them. Options might include "rocks with celery and batteries in a cup served with chopsticks" or a "foamy liquid with a candy cane and a cooked egg served in a bowl with a fork."

The five-minute game is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but Gualeni also hopes to get people thinking about real philosophical questions. According to its description page, the game is meant to reveal "that even a familiar, ordinary concept like 'soup' is vague, shifting, and impossible to define exhaustively."

You can try out Something Something Soup Something for free on your browser.

[h/t Waypoint]

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Big Questions
Why Do Ghosts Say ‘Boo’?
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People have screamed "boo," or at least some version of it, to startle others since the mid-16th century. (One of the earliest examples documented by the Oxford English Dictionary appeared in that 1560s poetic thriller, Smyth Whych that Forged Hym a New Dame.) But ghosts? They’ve only been yowling "boo" for less than two centuries.

The etymology of boo is uncertain. The OED compares it with the Latin boare or the Greek βοᾶν, meaning to “cry aloud, roar, [or] shout.” Older dictionaries suggest it could be an onomatopoeia mimicking the lowing of a cow.

Whatever the origins, the word had a slightly different shade of meaning a few hundred years ago: Boo (or, in the olden days, bo or bu) was not used to frighten others but to assert your presence. Take the traditional Scottish proverb “He can’t say bo to a goose,” which for centuries has been a slick way to call somebody timid or sheepish. Or consider the 1565 story Smyth Whych that Forged Hym a New Dame, in which an overconfident blacksmith tries to hammer a woman back into her youth, and the main character demands of his dying experiment: “Speke now, let me se / and say ones bo!”

Or, as Donatello would put it: “Speak, damn you, speak!”

But boo became scarier with time. After all, as the OED notes, the word is phonetically suited “to produce a loud and startling sound.” And by 1738, Gilbert Crokatt was writing in Presbyterian Eloquence Display’d that, “Boo is a Word that's used in the North of Scotland to frighten crying children.”

(We’re not here to question 250-year-old Scottish parenting techniques, but over at Slate, Forrest Wickman raises a good point: Why would anybody want to frighten a child who is already crying?)

In 18th century Scotland, bo, boo, and bu would latch onto plenty of words describing things that went bump in the night. According to the Dictionary of the Scots Language, the term bu-kow applied to hobgoblins and “anything frightful,” such as scarecrows. The word bogey, for “evil one,” would evolve into bogeyman. And there’s bu-man, or boo-man, a terrifying goblin that haunted man:

Kings, counsellors, and princes fair,

As weel's the common ploughman,

Hae maist their pleasures mix'd wi' care,

An' dread some muckle boo-man.

It was only a matter of time until ghosts got lumped into this creepy “muckle boo-man” crowd.

Which is too bad. Before the early 1800s, ghosts were believed to be eloquent, sometimes charming, and very often literary speakers. The spirits that appeared in the works of the Greek playwrights Euripides and Seneca held the important job of reciting the play’s prologue. The apparitions in Shakespeare’s plays conversed in the same swaying iambic pentameter as the living. But by the mid-1800s, more literary ghosts apparently lost interest in speaking in complete sentences. Take this articulate exchange with a specter from an 1863 Punch and Judy script.

Ghost: Boo-o-o-oh!

Punch: A-a-a-ah!

Ghost: Boo-o-o-o-oh!

Punch: Oh dear ! oh dear ! It wants’t me!

Ghost:  Boo-o-o-o-oh!

It’s no surprise that boo’s popularity rose in the mid-19th century. This was the age of spiritualism, a widespread cultural obsession with paranormal phenomena that sent scores of people flocking to mediums and clairvoyants in hopes of communicating with the dead. Serious scientists were sending electrical shocks through the bodies of corpses to see if reanimating the dead was possible; readers were engrossed in terrifying Gothic fiction (think Frankenstein, Zastrozzi, and The Vampyre); British police departments were reporting a heightened number of ghost sightings as graveyards were plagued by “ghost impersonators,” hoaxsters who camped out in cemeteries covered in white robes and pale chalk. It’s probably no coincidence that ghosts began to develop their own vocabulary—limited as it may be—during a period when everybody was curious about the goings-on within the spirit realm.

It may also help that boo was Scottish. Many of our Halloween traditions, such as the carving of jack-o’-lanterns, were carried overseas by Celtic immigrants. Scotland was a great exporter of people in the middle of the 1800s, and perhaps it’s thanks to the Scots-Irish diaspora that boo became every ghost’s go-to greeting.

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