If there is one thing that lawyers, law professors, law librarians, and law students can all agree on, it’s that we all hate to be wrong and love to be right. That is why I bring you the ABA’s two quizzes on pronunciation, one for each half of the alphabet. First of all, they are very difficult and fun to send to friends/enemies. Second, the quizzes force you to think about what it means to be right. These quizzes come from Bryan Garner’s ABA Journal column on legal language.
Now that you’ve taken the quizzes and you’re extremely angry at me for introducing you to them, let’s think about what this means. Take the example in the title of this post. The quiz asks you how to pronounce “acumen.” Is it “uh-KYOO-muhn” or “AK-yuh-muhn?” According to the quiz, it’s the former. I can honestly say that I have never heard it pronounced that way. Miriam-Webster.com lists that pronunciation as the first pronunciation, but does have “AK-yuh-muhn” as an alternative. The American Heritage Dictionary (which I trust most for usage), however, states that:
The pronunciation . . . with stress on the second syllable, is an older, traditional pronunciation reflecting the word’s Latin origin. The Anglicized pronunciation with stress on the first syllable . . . was accepted as standard by the entire Usage Panel in the 1997 survey and was the preferred pronunciation of two thirds of the Panelists. The older pronunciation was considered unacceptable by 40 percent of the Panel, suggesting that eventually this pronunciation will fall into disuse.
If that was the case in 1997, I think I’m prepared to keep saying “AK-yuh-muhn.”
But even if the other pronunciation is technically correct, does that mean you should use it? Although Garner seems to endorse the pronunciations in the quiz in his ABA Journal column, in his entry on pronunciation in the second edition of his Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage, Garner advises attorneys to “follow the pronunciation current among educated speakers in one’s region.” (p. 702). Then, (and we’ll ignore his bias here), Garner’s dictionary recommends checking a dictionary for the pronunciation of a word you’ve never heard.
It looks like the best advice is to look up the word, ask around, and listen. And, of course, be willing to be wrong every once in a while. You may have to trade being right for being understood. But what do I know? I can’t even pronounce “kudos.”