<< back to the archive list

December 15th, 2004

Pronouncing forte / more on capitalizing city and state / metanoic?

by Barbara Wallraff

Kathleen Burns, of Lubec, Maine, writes: “I was always told that ‘forte,’ meaning ‘strength’ or ‘specialty,’ was a French word pronounced ‘fort.’ I constantly hear the media pronounce it ‘fortay.’ As far as I can tell from my French dictionary, this is a musical term. The word spelled ‘forte’ in the French dictionary meaning ‘strength’ is pronounced ‘fort.’ This has been bothering me for years!”

Dear Kathleen: I’m all in favor of using pronunciation to distinguish different words with the same spelling -- for instance, “converse” meaning “talk” and “converse” meaning “reversed.” But using pronunciation to distinguish “forte” meaning “strength” from the musical term “forte” meaning “loud” is a lost cause. All the English-language dictionaries and pronunciation guides I checked for you accept “FOR-tay” as well as “fort” when the word means “strength.” (They accept only “FOR-tay” when the word means “loud.” And for either meaning, “for-TAY” is considered poor form.)

Now here’s why you mustn’t mind when you hear “FOR-tay”: The French word that our word comes from is actually “fort.” “Forte” is the same word with a feminine ending. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, when English borrowed the word, it “ignorantly substituted” the feminine form for the masculine. A French person pronouncing “fort” would say, approximately, “for,” dropping the “t.” So the pronunciation “fort” isn’t authentic either. Importing words unchanged from other languages has never been English-speakers’ forte.

John Sajovec, of Southfield, Mich., among other readers, was left wondering whether I’d told the whole story, recently, when I answered a question about capitalizing words like “city” and “state.” He writes: “I am in transportation consulting, and this comes up frequently. When I refer to input received from an official representative, is it not correct to write ‘according to data received from the City of Wherever’?”

Dear John: Right you are. If you’re using “city” to mean, essentially, the city government, it’s correct to capitalize the word—as in “The City of Southfield sponsored a tree-lighting ceremony on December 6.” The question I answered previously was about references to a place, which should be lowercase. Sometimes the distinction can be tricky. For instance, what about “The city of Southfield has an annual tree-lighting ceremony”? Here the place is more nearly the idea than the city government is—or so it seems to me. But a clever writer would probably sidestep the problem by lopping off the first three words of that sentence.

Howard Soli Jr., of Eastpointe, Mich., writes: “My sister has informed me of a possible case of word fraud. One of her professors regularly makes use of the word ‘metanoic.’ She confronted him, and he was unable to provide a definition. I have checked multiple sources and am unable to resolve this problem out of court. Please advise me of the validity of ‘metanoic.’”

Dear Howard: Those ivory-tower types will use language that wouldn’t be appropriate around the dinner table. I don’t object if your sister’s professor bandies around “metanoic” in class. It’s a specialized term, an adjective derived from the Greek word “metanoia,” which means “a fundamental shift of mind.” But if he can’t explain what he’s talking about, how is your sister supposed to learn anything from him?

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

<< back to the archive list