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November 19th, 2003

Pronouncing puerile / Oriental vs. Asian / graduated or graduated from?

by Barbara Wallraff

Bruce P. Coffin, Jr., of Albany, N.Y., writes, “Large bet with golf buddies. The word is ‘puerile.’ How does one pronounce it? Are there variations? I use the Latin pronunciation (remembered from my altar-boy and school days), ‘poo-air-ile,’ from the Latin for ‘boy’: ‘puer,’ which is pronounced ‘poo-air.’

“My buddies laughingly correct me, saying, ‘You mean ‘pure-ill.’ They went to Yale and Williams, so they think they know it all! What say ye?”

Nifty word—one for which modern life presents us with plenty of uses. It’s a near synonym of “childish” but more disapproving. Here it is, for instance, in a recent column published in the Hartford, Conn., Courant. The writer is talking about ads for the French Connection United Kingdom, a company that goes by its initials: “It’s just vulgar…. The whole puerile campaign might be tolerable if …”

But we seldom hear “puerile,” maybe because few people can pronounce it confidently. There are indeed variations. Unfortunately, your pronunciation is not one of them. Classical Latin is beside the point, because the word probably entered English from Latin by way of French, and the French pronounce their word “pwe-reel.” In English the word begins with a “pyoo” sound. The acceptable choices are to pronounce it in three syllables (“pyoo-ur-ul”) or two (“pyoor-ul”) and to pronounce the final syllable “ul” or “ile” or “il.”

Sorry, but you’d better pay up.

Fernand Corbeil, of Beverly, Mass., writes, “An argument ensued recently when I referred to my adopted Vietnamese granddaughter as ‘Oriental.’ My daughter insisted she be referred to as ‘Asian.’ Determined to prove my daughter wrong, I delved into my trusty World Book Dictionary, and lo and behold, my conviction is true!”

How old is that dictionary of yours? Of six major contemporary American dictionaries (I’m not including World Book’s, which is a rare item these days), five warn that “Oriental” in reference to people is “dated,” “often regarded as a term of disparagement,” or “offensive.” It raises eyebrows because “the Orient” has connotations of being an exotic place whose people are foreign to “us.” But Asia is simply, factually, one of the earth’s continents.

Are you still determined to one-up your daughter? If so, you might tell her that many Asian-Americans prefer to be called something more specific—like people proud of their Portuguese or Italian or Norwegian heritage, who aren’t often called “European-American.” An even better term for your granddaughter would be “Vietnamese-American.”

Roger D. Grow, of Iowa City, Iowa, writes, “Is it not proper to say ‘He graduated from high school (or college),’ as opposed to ‘He graduated high school’? More and more I hear ‘He graduated high school’ and I find it offensive.”

A few die-hard traditionalists still insist that “He was graduated from high school” is the only proper form. But you’re right that “He graduated high school” is increasingly common—and not everyone finds it offensive or people wouldn’t say it. I’m with you, though, and so are most authorities on correct English.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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