September 8, 2006

Apply Directly to the Whatever

There has been a good deal of comment on the Web about the bizarre and cheesy TV commercial for the headache remedy HeadOn. Besides having production values that suggest that the ad might have been produced by a crew of not-quite-talented middle schoolers, the commercial consists only of the directions for use, repeated three times: “HeadOn—apply directly to the forehead. HeadOn—apply directly to the forehead. HeadOn—apply directly to the forehead.”

Once I recovered from my initial disgust over the HeadOn commercial, I thought about the pronounciation of the word “forehead,” both in the ad itself and in the commentaries on it. (See and listen to the commentary by Brian Unger from NPR, for example.) Everyone seems to pronounce the word as fore´hed these days. I was taught to pronounce the word as fawr´id (or perhaps for´id), however, and the dictionaries I have consulted agree, at least insofar as they list such pronounciations first.

I suspect that the pronounciation fore´hed has become so common because it is analogous to the pronounciation of a whole list of nouns beginning with “fore” that do not change the pronounciation of the element that follows it: forarm, forebrain, forecast, foredeck, forefinger, forefoot, foreground, foregut, forehand, foreleg, forelimb, forelock, foremilk, forename, forenoon, forepaw, foreplay, etc. All these words begin with the prefix “fore,” indicating before, front, or superior. A number of verbs begin with this prefix as well, though these words generally do not emphasize the first syllable: forebode, foreclose, forefeel, forego, forejudge, etc. (“Forecast” is an exception, but this word is also a noun that occurs in the previous list.)

A small number of nouns that begin with “fore,” in addition to “forehead,” do alter the pronounciation of what follows: foreland, foreman, and forecastle (!). In any case, whenever I hear the pronounciation fore´hed, I begin thinking of where one’s afthead must be.

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