Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Kindly Place the Accent on the First Syllable!

Despite the nonstop national nattering about the Herman Cain mess, I've yet to see this all-important issue addressed: which is the preferred pronunciation of the word "harassment"?

In fact, amid the dozens of newscasts, talk radio calls and cable roundtable chats I've listened to since The Politico broke this story nine days ago, I've heard the accent placed on the first syllable a total of once thus far. (And that was just a couple minutes ago, by the Wall Street Journal questioner at Cain's ongoing press conference in Phoenix.)

Now it so happens that I have a decided preference for "HAIR-iss-ment", and in turn also positively abhor the almost-universally-used "huh-RASS-ment".

And make no mistake, both pronunciations are equally acceptable as Standard English. It's unfortunate so many people incorrectly believe lexicographers rank pronunciation preference; in fact, virtually every dictionary publisher sequences so-called "variant" pronunciations by usage frequency, rather than to reflect any supposed consensus of expert preference. So you're skating on grammatically thick ice with either pronunciation. (Now mind you, it's always considered terribly bad form if you fail to stick with just one.)

But I'm here to make the case for the, ahem, pronounced superiority of the first-syllable option. Call me a bluenose if you like, but I just don't enjoy hearing the sound "ass" uttered, even if it's merely three-quarters of a syllable sandwiched betwixt two other quite innocuous syllables.

This considerable--to me, at least*--consideration would be reason enough to a verbally punctilious type like myself, but there's a bonus. The pronunciation I invariably employ also alludes to Jean Harris, the Virginia finishing-school dean whom you'll remember served time for the upstate New York shooting death of another famous Herman, the Scarsdale Diet guru Dr. Tarnower.

The late physician and author may or may not have ever sexually harassed his longtime galpal per se, but by every account the two-timing Tarnower clearly done her wrong in that sad 1980 case. Of course, he didn't deserve to pay for his callousness with his life, either accidentally, as Harris implausibly contended at trial, or accidentally-on-purpose.

Harris survives in quiet post-prison retirement in Connecticut, incidentally, and remains at age 88 at least a somewhat sympathetic figure to anyone who holds cads in contempt. And, as an old-school headmistress responsible for the education of a couple generations of daughters of the Eastern elite, Harris presumably regards elegant grammar as rather important. So even if your ear isn't annoyed like mine is by that darned A-sound, if only to pay homage to Harris, why not argue the Cain matter with the accent on the first?

BRYAN STYBLE/somewhere

*Or perhaps at most; I'm fully aware few and maybe even no others are as absolutist as I am regarding verbal vulgarity, on or off the air.