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December 24th, 2003

Pronouncing poinsettia / gone missing / alright isn't all right

by Barbara Wallraff

James D. Teske, of Tampa, Fla., writes, “The name of the plant whose flowers (more correctly, bracts) decorate our homes and offices may be the most mispronounced word of the holiday season: ‘poinsettia.’ I ask my misspoken friends if they call that grand southern tree with saucer-sized white flowers a ‘mag-nola.’ They acknowledge the rightness of my comparison but continue to drop the ‘i’ before the ‘a’ and revert to ‘poin-setta.’ What can you do to stop this abomination?”

I’m with you, though I think “abomination” is putting it a bit too strongly. Most contemporary dictionaries give the “poin-setta” pronunciation as a variant. However, two books that I check when I want to know how careful speakers pronounce words—Garner’s Modern American Usage, by Bryan A. Garner, and The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations, by Charles Harrington Elster—each make the case for the four-syllable pronunciation “poin-set-ee-ah.”

Please note the first syllable as well as the final two syllables. Where I live, in Boston, the traditional accent softens most “r” sounds to “ah” sounds—as in “Pahk yah cah in Hahvahd Yahd.” A few Christmases ago I saw a flower vendor’s hand-lettered sign that read ‘Point Setters.’ No, he wasn’t giving away puppies. And no, there’s no “t” at the end of the first syllable of “poinsettia.” Neither in Boston nor anywhere else should the word be pronounced as if there is one.

Marcia Chaffee, of Winona, Minn., writes, “Since when is a person ‘gone missing’? It sounds like a throwback to the 19th century, but it is used so often now.”

“Gone missing” gets a lot of people’s hackles up. At least, I’ve received a surprising amount of mail about this phrase, none of it complimentary. And “gone missing” is indeed seen and heard much more often than it used to be. Modern news databases let me tally how many times in a given year the phrase has been published in particular newspapers or in Associated Press stories. A half dozen years ago “gone missing” was relatively rare nationwide. Since then usage has steadily increased coast to coast.

“Gone missing” seems to be coming to us from the United Kingdom, where even today the phrase is much more common than it is in the United States. Here’s an oh-so-British sample passage, which appeared in the London Daily Mail earlier this month: “Burly Labour MP Clare Short made an impassioned plea on LBC radio last week for the return of her secretary’s whippet, which had gone missing. Yesterday a man from Balham called her office to say he had the animal in his care.”

Janice Lien, of Eaton Rapids, Mich., writes, “What’s with ‘alright’? My third-grade teacher forbade it but added that when she was a youngster, ‘already’ wasn’t allowed either.”

Your third-grade teacher must have been older than she looked. A 1611 edition of the Bible contained “already” in the sense in which the word is used today. “Alright” has been on the fringes of our language for a mere century, and it has yet to win recognition as standard.

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

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