Febuary, febry

‘Last February? Last February? Oh yes, I was here last February.’ He [the janitor]  pronounced it exactly as spelled.’  (p. 236)

(Source: Pinterest)

The passage is from Raymond Chandler‘s novel The Little Sister (1949). When I came across this metalinguistic comment, I was wondering if anyone who isn’t focussed on issues of prescriptivism, would have spotted it.

February is a usage problem, and an old chestnut at that, for we find it already in Five Hundred Mistakes of Daily Occurrence, one of the earliest American usage guides (published in 1856). The anonymous author of Five Hundred Mistakes writes that “this word is often incorrectly spelled by omitting the r” (p. 21), but that is not why Chandler comments on it. His comment is about pronunciation, not spelling. Pronunciation of the word, according to the OED, is variable, both in British and American English: as many as seven variants are recorded in the dictionary.

For both varieties the OED lists pronunciations with and without /r/, but only for British English does it record a variable number of syllables. This is what Caroline Taggart, in her Ladyship’s Guide to the Queen’s English (2010), criticises  when she comments that february is “another word where people often swallow syllables” (p. 123), so pronouncing it as “febry”. Unacceptable in her view.

Thirty years earlier, Robert Burchfield had listed a recommendation for the correct pronunciation of the word in his BBC guide The Spoken Word (1981) as well: “(feb-roor-i) not (feb-you-)” (p. 13). Chandler’s comment, I think, is the same as Burchfield’s. He would have expected the janitor to say “feb-you-ari”, in line with the man’s assumed (though not clarified) social background.

This isn’t the only metalinguistic comment I came across in Chandler’s novels (though I’ve only read two so far). His biographer, Tom Williams, recounts an argument Chandler had with one of his editors over his use use of a split infinitive. This was in 1940 btw. “When I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it stays split …”, he is claimed to have said. “The emendations took time,” Williams drily commented.

Chandler didn’t write many novels, but I can’t wait the read the other ones.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Febuary, febry

  1. adrianstenton says:

    Wells’ “Longman Pronunciation Dictionary” (first edition, 1990), lists seven British alternatives, noting that some forms, “although criticized, are often heard from educated speakers”.

  2. Paul Nance says:

    Live and Learn: or 1000 Mistakes Corrected (also 1856, published in New York) advises: “He was born in January and she in February : pronounce January as it is written, and not Jennivery, and beware of leaving out the u in February, or of calling the word Febbevery.” Those pronunciations must have been current in both UK and US, because the London Live and Learn (from which the NY editor borrowed much of his material) has precisely the same wording.

  3. Paul Nance says:

    Another source of metalinguistic comment is Rex Stout’s mysteries, featuring private detective Nero Wolfe, a proud pedant. In the opening scene of The Gambit (1962), Wolfe sits by his fireplace, feeding pages from the “subversive” third edition of the Merriam Webster unabridged dictionary into the fire.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s