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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.

Merriam-Webster obsesses a little more. Its Collegiate dictionary says: “If two variants joined by ‘or’ are out of alphabetical order”—again as our poets are—“they remain equal variants. The one printed first is, however, slightly more common than the second.” Nonetheless, the Library of Congress, to which the U.S. Poet Laureate is appointed, calls the present and past appointees the “Poet Laureates” or the “Laureates.” On this subject the Library of Congress is probably the most influential source—so hold your head higher.

“Poet laureate” is different from titles like “inspector general” and “consul general.” Inspectors general and consuls general are not generals but inspectors and consuls, as everyone agrees. (Don’t try making the same case for why the U.S. Attorney General should not be called “General,” though, or you’ll start an argument. Whether or not John Ashcroft should be addressed as “General Ashcroft” is hotly disputed.) Poet laureates, though, are both poets and laureates. “Laureate” has been a noun used to refer to eminent people since the 1500s. Hold your head a little higher still!

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.

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