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Words, Feb. 19



Life begins at forte:

A reader inquired about the pronunciation of forte, and the question has proved trickier than I expected. Most questions do, come to think of it.

A forte is “a strong point, a skill,” as in “Fee-splitting is his forte.” Most of us who are over 50 and think we're smart learned years ago to ignore the e on the end and say the word as one syllable, like the Fort in Fort Smith. Saying fort was our forte, so to speak. We believed that only the unlearned and affected said FOR-tay, feigning Frenchiness.

But as we've seen before, looking things up can be dangerous to your self-esteem. My old reliable Random House was not entirely supportive of my position. Yes, fort is the older pronunciation, it said, but “A two-syllable pronunciation is increasingly heard, especially from younger educated speakers, perhaps owing to confusion with the musical term forte … ”

The bottom fell out of my assurance when I looked into the Merriam-Webster online: “In forte we have a word derived from French that in its ‘strong point' sense has no entirely satisfactory pronunciation.” In other words, you can't get there from here. Fort, FOR-tay, for-TAY and even FOR-tee are all in use, according to MW, and all are considered standard. Furthermore, FOR-tay and for-TAY are “probably the most frequent pronunciations in American English.”

Save yourselves. I'll hold the forte.



My favorite name of the current basketball season is Epiphany Smith. I'll bet you experience one when you watch her play.


Bowled over:

On Feb. 5, we wrote “In bowling, the kingpin is the headpin, the one in front, nearest the bowler.” That came from a dictionary. My own bowling days were brief and long ago, and today I wouldn't know a kingpin from a rolling pin. Gary DiGiuseppi, who would, writes:

“I understand it may vary regionally, but growing up in Detroit we called the 5 pin the ‘kingpin.' An Internet search shows some sites, but not all, agree.”

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