October 7, 2006

Trying Too Hard II

In a recent post, I commented on pronunciations that appear to be the product of well-meaning ignorance. I though I had found another example of this phenomenon in “columnist.” I pronounce this word kol-e-mist, but I frequently hear it pronounced kol-em-nist. I was surprised when I looked up the word in the dictionary. The preferred pronunciation (first-listed, anyway) is kol-em-nist. My surprise caused me to consult several dictionaries, always with the same result. This is very curious. No dictionary suggests that that the “n” in “column” is ever pronounced, so why should it suddenly be voiced when a suffix meaning “one who makes or produces a particular thing” is tacked on to it? (The word “column” comes from the Latin columna, by the way. The “n” lost its vowel along the way, and is therefore not voiced.)

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “columnist” is a relatively new word, appearing first in the U.S. in the 1920s. The first example of its use given in the OED actually uses the spelling “colyumist.” (“Colyum” is listed as a “jocular spelling” of “column.”) A second example uses the conventional spelling. Just as suffixing a contraction of “not” to the word “did” should not be expected to change the initial sound of the resulting word, it is a surprise that this expectation is often not realized when “ist” is suffixed to “column.” My suspicion is that the spelling “columnist” is simply too suggestive, making the pronunciation kol-em-nist more common than kol-e-mist, even if it is less logical.

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