Battle of the Dictionaries

By Maeve Maddox

In commenting on the article Forte or Fortë, Cache or Cachet?, Geoff Foster points out that the Oxford American Dictionary on his Mac supports the /fortay/ pronunciation of forte (in the sense of “strong point). He also implies that the same dictionary gives a pronunciation for another French borrowing, cadre, that ignores the /r/ sound.
NOTE: I’m a bit puzzled about this one. The dictionary on my new Mac laptop gives the pronunciation /kad ree/ for cadre.

Pierre B. asks why Americans want to put a /t/ in the French borrowing niche.

Alas, when it comes to pronunciation, English speakers face constant decisions. For those who wish to support their decisions with the authority of a dictionary, the first decision to be made is that of which dictionary to cite!

As Geoff points out, the Oxford American on the Mac gives the /fortay/ pronunciation as the first choice for forte with the sense of “strong point.” Its first pronunciation for cadre in his dictionary drops the /r/ sound.

The Webster Unabridged, on the other hand, gives /fort/ as the first choice for this use of forte, and offers a pronunciation with the /r/ sound in its first choice for cadre. An alternate pronunciation for cadre, without the /r/ sound, is flagged as “chiefly British.”

Both dictionaries show a short i pronunciation and a /ch/ sound for the che in niche. The /ch/ phonogram (ch as in church) sounds as if it has a /t/ in it. Webster gives a second pronunciation of /nish/ which avoids the /t/ sound, but still gives the word a short i sound for the vowel.

As Geoff advises in his comment, take your pick.

My pick for forte is /fort/. My pick for niche is /neesh/. As for cadre, I might use the word in writing, but I can’t imagine having occasion to use it in conversation. In such an event I’d probably include an /r/ sound.

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5 Responses to “Battle of the Dictionaries”

  • Krissy

    Is this a case of the dictionary changing to accommodate common speech or was either pronunciation correct in older dictionaries as well?

  • Maeve

    Krissy,
    My 1960 Webster’s Collegiate gives separate entries for French forte and Italian forte. The first shows only the pronunciation /fort/ and the second the pronunciation /for tay/. (I regret to report that the portion of the page that begins with caddis in my dictionary has been torn away, taking cadre with it.)

    Something to keep in mind is that dictionaries are guides to usage, not Holy Writ. Dictionary entries reflect both popular and educated usage. Educated speakers and writers can make thoughtful choices about how they use the language, accepting creative, useful neologisms, and rejecting those that are only the product of ignorance.

  • Dan

    When I heard “cadre” out loud during politics lectures, the “re” was an Anglicised version of the French pronunciation, so it came out like “cahda”. (Bearing in mind that this is in Australia, where the instinct is not to pronounce r’s unless absolutely necessary”.

  • Grant Barrett

    The Mac OS X dictionary, which is the same as the New Oxford American Dictionary, actually gives four pronunciations of “cadre.” In order to see them all, however, you need to go to the Dictionary.app preferences and select “US English IPA.” If you use only the “US English Diacritical” option, you’ll only see two pronunciations. There’s also a British English IPA option which has three pronunciations.

  • Maeve

    Grant,
    Thanks for the tip. I just changed the preferences on mine to US IPA. All four pronunciations given for cadre indicate a pronounced /r/.

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