January 14th, 2004
Corker / poets laureate or poet laureates? / pronouncing diaper
by Barbara Wallraff
Mark A. Baker, of Cheboygan, Mich., writes, “Where did the expression ‘Isn’t that a corker?’ come from? My grandmother used to say this.”
In the mid-1800s, corks were often used as bottle stoppers, and “corker” meant just about what “conversation stopper” now does. A “corker” was either the last word on the subject or something so astonishing that everyone stopped talking and gawped. Within a few decades, though, any corker was expected to be astonishing—the sense of the word shifted away from “stopper” and toward “stunner.” So “corker” scarcely makes literal sense anymore, but that’s what it means and how it got here.
Debbie McGill, of Durham, N.C., writes, “My state has a poet laureate, and I wonder what the plural of that term is. ‘Poets laureate’ seems pompous. But ‘poet laureates’ is only the second option in Merriam-Webster and the American Heritage Dictionary, and in at least one other dictionary it isn’t an option at all. What should it be? Am I entitled to use ‘poet laureates’ with head held high?”
Yes, indeed, hold your head high. In the dictionaries you name, where two variants are joined by “or”—as “poets laureate” and “poet laureates” are—they are “equal variants,” and both are considered standard. End of story, as far as the American Heritage Dictionary is concerned.
Margery Glick, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, writes, “A few weeks ago you discussed pronouncing the second ‘i’ in poinsettia. How about the ‘a’ in diaper?”
If this were 50 years ago, or if you and I spoke British English, I would say, Yes, do pronounce the “a”: “di-a-per.” But today in America, that “a” is optional. Current dictionaries don’t mind if you pronounce it, nor do they mind if you don’t. One specialized reference I rely on, “The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations,” by Charles Harrington Elster, explains that “diaper” demonstrates acceptable “syncope” (pronounce that “sing-kuh-pee,” please): “the loss or dropping of a letter, sound, or syllable from the middle of a word.” Other examples include “chocolate,” “family” and “vegetable.”
© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.