One of my favourite stories tells of the foreign student who is baffled by a Canadian schoolmate who struggles in English class. “Isn’t it your language?” he asks.
My love of language no doubt was a key factor in my chosen career as a newspaperman (which is way I like to describe myself). I was always a good speller and writing came easily to me, but I am routinely surprised to see and hear glaring errors in spelling, word usage and pronunciation at every turn. Why, I wonder, can’t people take advantage of the world of resources that are at their very fingertips when they are sitting at a computer?
In my early days at the Advance, editors Sue Betcher and Helena White and I liked nothing better than to start out our Fridays by tackling the very good crossword puzzle that we ran in each Thursday (the Advance had Monday and Thursday editions back then). We worked independently to solve the puzzle, but would consult if we got stuck on a clue. When we were all baffled one of us would make the call to the Creston Public Library, where chief librarian Barb Thomas was only too happy to help (although chances were that she would know the answer without having to consult reference books!).
That was in the late 1970s and early 1980s, though. Personal computers and the Internet had not yet changed our lives. Fast-forward to today, when while writing I might do a Google search or use an online dictionary or access one of more of a seemingly infinite reference sources, all accessed with a couple of simply key strokes. We are in an age where information is more easily available than ever before, and I am thrilled to be part of it.
I love that questions that arise from a simple conversation can be answered immediately. Who wrote that book or song? When did that happen? What was that song lyric? What poet talked about fog and cat’s feet? (Carl Sandburg in Fog, where he wrote, “The fog comes on little cat feet. It sits looking over harbor and city on silent haunches and then moves on.”
Sometimes it doesn’t even take a search engine. An app on my iPhone identifies a song playing on the radio within seconds, with astonishing accuracy. Start to tap an address into Google Maps and the location often pops up before you have even entered the name of a city.
Earlier this year we watched the movie Brooklyn, for which the lead actress received an Academy Award nomination. Saoirse Ronan played the role as an Irish immigrant to the U.S. beautifully. But how on earth is that name pronounced? By Googling “pronounce saoirse” — don’t waste effort with capitalizations — and the answer is provided verbally within seconds. “SEER-shuh”. I have no recollection about how I learned the pronunciation of Siobhan (“Shih-VON”) in pre-Internet days, but I do remember being fascinated last year when watching a YouTube video of a Scot sitting in an arm chair and pronouncing a list of Scotch whisky names. I was surprised at how many I didn’t know.
So when I hear a broadcaster mispronounce a word, my first thought is, “How much effort would it have taken to get it right?” But the trick, of course, is that you first have to suspect you might not have it right.
When I was a kid I treasured my two hardcover activity books that included puzzles, stories and jokes. But for years I puzzled over a knock-knock joke.
(Confession: I just Googled Theophilus to double-check the spelling.)
What, I wondered, was funny about that pun? Too stubborn to simply ask my parents, I kept my bafflement to myself until one day, through some unrecalled source, I learned that Theophilus is not pronounced the-oh-FILL-us, but the-AWFUL-us.
My childhood would have been less complicated if I had only had Google and YouTube!
Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.