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How do you say inaugural?

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April January 24, 2009 11:51 PM

I've enjoyed the wide-ranging linguistic commentary* on Obama's inauguration -- the oath and the speech -- around the blogosphere and printosphere. But so far, nobody has mentioned the language issue I couldn't escape: The ambivalence of broadcasters about the pronunciation of inaugural.

This isn't a new issue, and probably I only noticed it because I was paying closer attention than usual to the more celebratory than usual runup to the big day. But everywhere I turned the dials, or clicked the clickers, I heard alternating pronunciations: Here an i-NAW-gyur-ul, my way, and there an i-NAW-gur-ul, with a gur-gly third syllable.

I-NAW-gyur-ul is the traditional pronunciation, with a -gu- sound like the ones in regular, singular, and triangulate. But the other version is older than I suspected. According to Charles Harrington Elster's "Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations," the i-NAW-gur-ul variants showed up in a dictionary in 1949 and have "gradually achieved the status of acceptable alternative pronunciations," though "no authority prefers them and no dictionary lists them first."

Inaugural, however, has some ambiguity built in. Augur, "to foretell," is pronounced AW-gur, just like auger, the tool; but augury, "divination," is AW-gyur-ee. It would be reasonable enough if a speaker decided that inaugural could go either way.

More likely, though, it's just one of those fashions that ripple through the language -- perhaps especially through broadcasting language -- from time to time. Is there any other way to explain may-OR-al and elec-TOR-al?


*Including, in no particular order: Neal Whitman at Literal-Minded, Gabe Doyle at Motivated Grammar, Ben Zimmer and Geoff Nunberg and Mark Liberman at Language Log, Steve Pinker in the New York Times, and John McWhorter at TNR.com.

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Rules and realities of English usage from Boston Globe Ideas columnist Jan Freeman.
Jan Freeman, a former Boston Globe editor, has been writing the weekly column The Word since 1997. E-mail her at freeman@globe.com.
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