Sunday, July 10, 2005


Grin and Bear It

My deplorable taste in movies gravitates (sinks downwards) towards Westerns and shoot-em-up thrillers, and I usually avoid French films like the plague. But I'll probably make an exception for Luc Jacquet's documentary La Marche de l'empereur, narrated in its U.S. version March of the Penguins by Morgan Freeman. The clips are breathtaking, and the movie is rated G.

I've seen two reviews of this movie on television. Both reviewers pronounced the movie's setting Antartica, not Antarctica. I hope Morgan Freeman pronounces it correctly.

Douglas Harper's immensely useful Online Etymology Dictionary gives the following derivations of Arctic and Antarctic:
c.1391, artik, from O.Fr. artique, from M.L. articus, from L. arcticus, from Gk. arktikos "of the north," lit. "of the (constellation) Bear," from arktos "bear," the Bear being a northerly constellation. From the usual I.E. base for "bear" (cf. Avestan aresho, Arm. arj, Alb. ari, L. ursus, Welsh arth); see bear (n.) for why the name changed in Gmc. The -c- was restored 1556. Arctic Circle (66 degrees 32 minutes north), first attested 1556, is that inside which the Great Bear never sets.

1366, antartyk, from O.Fr. antartique, from M.L. antarcticus, from Gk. antarktikos "opposite the north," from anti- "opposite" + arktikos "arctic" (see Arctic). The first -c- sound ceased to be pronounced in M.L. and was dropped in O.Fr. Modern spelling, which restores it, dates from 1601.
Modern dictionaries, which are descriptive and not prescriptive, give the pronunciation without the -c- as an acceptable alternative.

Despite the long pedigree of this offensive pronunciation (dating back to the Middle Ages) and the absolution given to it by modern laxicographers, I'll never be able to hear it without regarding the speaker as a dolt and a nincompoop, especially when the speaker is a professional who should know better. The modern spelling and correct pronunciation allow us to see and hear the root of the words, Greek arktos (bear). The slovenly pronunciation obscures the contour and the history of the words. It's like looking at a beautiful woman dressed in a shapeless burlap sack. You miss the delectation of the curves.

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