by RIP RENSE
Feb Brew Air Eee
Owed to Feb
are days of three,
but the daze for me
is the maze I see
in the li'l' old 'R'
that follows the 'B.'
-- Churchy LaFemme, a character in the great comic strip, Pogo, circa 1952
Say "brew." Altogether, now. Brewwwwwww.
Now say "air." Airrrrrrr. Good. Now put them together: "brew-air."
Brewwwwwwairrrrrr. Fe-brewwwairrr-y. Excellent. You are cured. You need never again say
February is the Quiet Beatle of months (George
was born on the 24th!) It's wooden Abbott to the rest of the year's manic Costello. It
should be a guest on Dr. Phil, sniffling about self-esteem. It's chronologically impaired.
If Rodney Dangerield wasn't born in February, he should have been.
When is the last time you heard
a love song rhyming "moon" with February? Even "Harvest Moon," the
only song in recorded human history to mention the moon anywhere near February, laments
not having had amorous fulfillment since "January, February, June or
July"---using the poor month only because of its rhyme and rhythmic value. (And
sometimes, singers drop it altogether in favor of, er, April.) Schubert sure didn't
write "Im Wunderschoenen Monat Februar. . ."
February is forever squished between veritable
time power-players: January, ambassador of every single new year, and March, which comes
in like a lion. February is puny, at a mere 28 days, and must rely on an act of cosmic
caprice, as it does this year, to occasionally stretch to 29. Something bearing the
faintly suspicious title, "leap year."
I went to the library and
tried to come up with something to ennoble this sorry month, and, I can safely report that
February's mythology is no less substantial than a George W. Bush speech. The Romans
considered it a time of purification and sacrifice--- respectable concepts, if difficult
for MTV viewers to comprehend. The feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary
falls smack dab on Feb. 2, but of course, it's lost in the pork-rind-and-Bud-bottle wake
of the religious festival known as Super Sunday.
The French could think of no more attractive a
name for February than Pluviose, or "rain month." But then, the French
like to fatten up geese so they can eat their livers. The Anglo-Saxons, at least, went for
something a little more specific than "rain month." They dubbed February (drum
roll, fanfare, anything), er, "sprout kale." That's right, "sprout
kale." Yes, like you, I feel a wave of excitement even to speak the words,
"sprout kale." Makes you just want to sing, doesn't it? Hail, hail, to old
Sprout Kale, time of wonder, time of. . .
Green, leafy vegetables.
This, as you have probably
guessed, was to commemorate the scintillating fact that cabbage and kale grow well during
this time of year.
I gave up on the library and turned to
web-browsing, which yielded the random information that, during February of 1997, Lebanon
offered a 50 percent discount rate for shops, hotels, apartments and car rental agencies. Click.
Allied Forces dropped incendiary bombs on Dresden Feb. 14-15, 1945, burning up about
135,000 civilians and destroying a city known for art and magnificent architecture. Click.
The first Playboy club opened in February 1960. Click. In February 1848 The
Treaty with Mexico was signed, giving the U.S. both Texas and "upper"
California! I'm not sure the addition of either territory has, in the long run,
contributed to the betterment of the country. Unlike the Playboy Club.
To cap it all off, February is the only
month that no one can pronounce. How many times do you hear someone mispronounce
"May?" or "August?" Yet, as you are reading these words, millions of
citizens---led by glazed-eyed, malaprop-spitting TV newsmannequins ---are abusing poor old
Feb-U-ary, they're saying. Every last
one of them.
OK, maybe this is unfair to TV newsmannequins.
They do, after all, have more important concerns than pronunciation---things like keeping
their eyebrows arched, nodding their heads, and reading very slowly in real loud
voices. Can't expect them to be bothered with every single letter of every word they read,
right? Look, they already have their hands full with "incidents," which now
generally comes out as "incidences." Still, TV news exerts powerful influence on
spoken English---possibly the determining influence---so I'm afraid I must ask the
newsmannequins of America to take on this extra burden: stop abusing February! Disabuse
yourselves of Feb-U-ary. It's wrong!
But wait---it isn't. To my astonishment,
I found this pronunciation instruction in Webster's:
F-e-b, followed by a y and
that upside-down e thing, followed by wer, followed by long e.
Put 'em all together and you get. ...
But um, what about that r after the b?
I rather like r's, you see, and---oh, wait, there it is--- in the second
suggested pronunciation! F-e-b, followed by r and upside-down e,
etc. Second pronunciation? How could Webster's justify such a thing?
Easy. An insidious phenomenon that has
inveigled itself into linguistic legitimacy: usage.
Under "usage," Webster's exalts Feb-U-ary,
blaming another obfuscating device called dissimilation. As near as I can tell, this is a
fancy word meaning that people are lazy, and like to drop the sound of one letter when it
comes next to another, more celebrated, high-profile, cigar-smoking letter---like a pesky r
after glorious, percussive b.
"This happens regularly in
February," Webster's says, adding, "which is more often pronounced (Febuary)
than (February.)" What's more, "these variants are in ... acceptable use."
Acceptable? Says who? Apparently, under the
guise of "usage," people are free to drop letters to their hearts' content.
Here's how it works: if everybody mispronounces something often enough, Webster's is right
there, waiting to rear up and declare it legal! The devil has gotten hold of Noah Webster.
Imagine if "usage" extended to the Supreme Court. Why, you could rob all the
liquor stores in town, provided you did it often enough.
Well, at least this is good news for TV
newsmannequins. Soon they can say "a whole nother" with compunction. And
"liberry." Hey, wait a minute. ...
Every grade school teacher in
the country harps on kids to say "library," right? To pronounce that r
after the b, right? (Well, my grade school teachers did.) What's so special about
"library?" How does its r pull rank over the r in February?
How is it that dissimilation is legal in one case, and illegal the next? I grabbed a
dictionary and thumbed. Felt like I had caught the teacher making a mistake.
And Webster's agreed with me: the correct
pronunciation of "library" uses the r! Li-brair-ee. What's going on
here? Webster's endorses the "br" in "library," but doesn't bother
about it in "February"?
Hypocrisy! Double-standard! Dictionary duplicity!
No. Even worse. I think it's a conspiracy.
Subverting the pronunciation
of February, apparently, was not enough to satisfy the word-wackers at Webster's.
Ominously, the esteemed etymologists seem to be quietly laying the groundwork to subvert
the pronunciation of yet another "br" word. They are at this minute plotting to
make it legal to give "library" the Dennis The Menace pronunciation:
"liberry." How? They cite "usage" again, noting that
"liberry" is increasingly common. It's even heard, the dictionary trumpets,
"from educated speakers, including college presidents and professors."
College presidents and profs saying
Pardon me while I run to the baffroom.
Say brewwww. . .
BACK TO PAGE ONE