Magazine article The Spectator

Mind Your Language

Magazine article The Spectator

Mind Your Language

Article excerpt

MY friend and far-from-token fellow woman columnist from right at the back has passed on an enquiry on a literally U and non-U matter.

What, asks a reader from Berkshire who embraces anonymity like a marriageable heiress, are we to make of the inconsistent pronunciation of o in constable, Covent Garden, conduit and so on?

I should have thought that, despite the inconsistency, there is seldom any real trouble with such words when we use them often. We tend to be happy about our own pronunciation no matter what other people say. Take conduit. Even the up-to-date, broadminded Dr Burchfield, the Fowler of our day, says that the ordinary pronunciation is conned-it. That will not stop me saying conned-u-it, or other people saying cunned-it.

For my part, I cannot understand why anybody says con-stable for the policeman or for the painter, when my idiolect plumps for cun-stable. The etymology is from comes stabuli, `count of the stable', but that does not have much to do with it.

A pleasantly complicated case is convent, about the pronunciation of which we are all agreed, except in the context of Covent Garden. The word convent derives from the Anglo-French covent or cuvent. This in turn comes from the Latin conventum. …

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