“Forte” or “Fortë,” “Cache” or “Cachet”?

By Maeve Maddox

How many times have you heard people say something is not their “forte” and pronounce forte as /for tay/?

This mispronunciation has become so wide-spread that it’s on its way to establishing itself as an acceptable variation. The error has arisen from the fact that there are two “fortes” in English, each with a different pronunciation.

forte /for tay/
Adverb (or adjective) meaning “strong” or “loud.” This word comes into English from Italian and is used chiefly in a musical context. Ex. Play this measure forte /for-tay/.

forte /fort/
Noun meaning “strong point,” “strength.” This word comes into English from French. Ex. Housekeeping is not my forte /fort/.

INTERESTING TRIVIA: The word forte /fort/ can refer to the strongest part of a sword blade, i.e., the part nearest the hilt. The weakest part of the blade, the part between the tip and the middle, is called the foible. Just as a forte is a person’s strong point, a foible is a (minor) weakness. Ex. His chief foible is buying every new electronic gadget as soon as it comes out.

Two other French words that give some speakers trouble are cache and cachet.

Not long ago I heard an NPR announcer speak of a “cache of weapons.” She pronounced cache as /ka shay/.

The word cache is pronounced /kash/. A cache is a hidden hoard. It’s probably from the French verb cacher, “to hide.” Early explorers would hide food and supplies for the return journey. The hidden supplies were called a cache. Among the many place names left by French explorers in the state of Arkansas is that of the Cache River.

cachet /ka shay/ is from the same French verb. As a noun cachet is literally a stamp or a seal. Figuratively it has come to mean “approval.” Ex. The plans for the new sewer system carry the Mayor’s cachet. Cachet can also mean “mark of distinction.” Ex. Driving a Rolls bestows a certain cachet.

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40 Responses to ““Forte” or “Fortë,” “Cache” or “Cachet”?”

  • Dorie

    I am 50, have university degrees from both the UK and the US, have lived in both countries for decades each, and have always heard “forte” pronounced “fortay”.

    Today is the first day that I have ever seen this website, and so far I’ve read about 20 articles here on grammar questions, several of which have pronounced that people should not stick to what is technically correct for the sake of it, but rather should use whatever they are most comfortable with, or whatever will make communication simplest and most effective within the specific group/milieu/occasion.
    For example, I’ve read here that the who/whom distinction isn’t that important anymore due to the vast usage of the incorrect “who” in all situations, and I’ve seen “who” used by authors here in blogposts in situations where “whom” would be the correct term.
    I am pedantic about keeping the who/whom distinction because it’s actually quite easy to tell, in most cases, which one is right to use (just try out he/she and him/her in place of the who/whom, and it will normally be apparent), and because there is no clear reason for educated people to be very lazy about this, since there is only the question of having to say/type one letter more, the “m”.

    Therefore, given the relaxed attitude about who/whom here, I’m a bit baffled by the intransigence about “forte” being pronounced “fort”, especially when sources like Merriam-Webster say that “fortay” is standard in both American and British English; further, Merriam-Webster says that the “fort” pronunciation wouldn’t be quite correct, even _in French_.

    From the Merriam-Webster website:
    “In forte we have a word derived from French that in its “strong point” sense has no entirely satisfactory pronunciation. Usage writers have denigrated \ˈfȯr-ˌtā\ and \ˈfȯr-tē\ because they reflect the influence of the Italian-derived 2forte. Their recommended pronunciation \ˈfȯrt\, however, does not exactly reflect French either: the French would write the word le fort and would pronounce it more similar to English for. So you can take your choice, knowing that someone somewhere will dislike whichever variant you choose. All are standard, however.”

    From the Cambridge Dictionary (dictionary.cambridge.org) website:
    On the “British” tab:
    “Forte, noun. uk /ˈfɔː.teɪ/ us /ˈfɔːr.teɪ/ A strong ability, something that a person can do well….”

  • Dorie

    Regarding the above comment by Matt —
    Matt on November 11, 2011 9:24 pm
    “Another great French word that is commonly mispronounced by English speakers is “repetoire.” How many baseball announcers have you describing a pitcher’s “Rep Er Twar”? I agree with Venqax and previous posters…just because a French word has been adopted by English speakers and mispronounced does not mean we should accept it or adopt it.”

    He is incorrect — the word is actually spelled “repertoire”, with “r” appearing twice, not just once.
    That spelling is not a mistaken Americanism either — Wiktionary’s etymology of the word goes, “Borrowing from French répertoire, from Late Latin repertorium (“an inventory, list, repertory”), from Latin reperiō (“I find, find out, discover, invent”)….”

  • Dave

    Language does evolve. The acceptance of something wrong merely because of its prevalent use is devolution. The rationale that “Common usage dictates correctness” would mean that the correct pronunciation of “et cetera” is “excetera,” “regimen” and “regime” are interchangeable, “your” can correctly be used to mean “you are,” and “Were u at.” is as correct as “Where are you?” Just because more and more ‘Mericans are too lazy and ignorant to bother to learn fluency in “there” native language, the rest of us don’t need to accept that the uneducated majority dictates what is correct.

  • aldous smith

    Gene, there’s nothing wrong with speaking with clarity and precision. Trouble is, language use changes whether we like it or not. (Omitting ‘The’ at the beginning of the previous sentence would have had me marked as semi-illiterate at one time; which is precisely why I used it.) That’s not to say that such usage is either correct or contributes to clarity or precision. I’m of the ilk that insists that if language usage, vocabulary, syntax, etc. makes meaning muddier, or allows for meanings one doesn’t intend, then it is poor language usage. (Nitpickers might argue that ‘usage’ should be dropped altogether, in favour of ‘use,’ but since doing so would not contribute to the clarity of my message, I consider that academic, in the worst way.) I fear we’re all caught up in a flood of language metamorphosis that we can’t halt. Samuel Johnson might have said much the same thing in his day. Since ‘fortay’ has been accepted pronunciation for generations, it is unlikely that taking a firm stance on the ‘correct’ pronunciation is going to achieve much in the way of rectifying that – if it needs rectifying at all. My pet peeve (other than the term ‘pet peeve’) is the misuse of the word enormity to mean something very large. It means extreme evil, but even the Oxford Dictionary is now acknowledging (though not necessarily condoning) its common misuse. I will stand with the few who care and, until I drop dead, insist that we use enormity for what it means, since we already have plenty of words to denote great size. Pretty soon, I’m sure, I will be called a pretentious ass for so doing. I don’t care. Damn the Philistines, I say!

  • Aldous

    Forte, with the e pronounced, is not simply ‘on its way’ to becoming accepted in the English language. It has been accepted as such for generations. It’s just as likely the use of the word, as pronounced, came from the musical term forte – ‘loudly’ or ‘with strength.’ The exact etymology is likely unclear, and the history of its use. This article, I fear, is nit-picking so as to appear authoritative. No-one is wrong in pronouncing the final e. In fact, not doing so would probably mark you as either needlessly pedantic or annoyingly eccentric.

  • Jan

    I found this old discussion while searching for a much older “On Language” column by William Safire, in which he addressed the correct pronunciation of forte, meaning strength. I haven’t found the old column, so I’m paraphrasing his tool to remember the correct pronunciation for the word. “I proclaim my forte (fort) in a voice that is forte (fortay).” Judging by the old Safire column, written in the late 70s or early 80s, this battle has been raging for over 30 years. With sadness, I say it’s time to hoist the white flag over the forte. (Sorry. The pun just came to me and I couldn’t help myself.)

  • gene

    In the dispute between Hagridore and Venqax about the differing opinions on the pronunciations or “fort” and “fortay,” Venqax clearly carries the day. His or her arguments possess the forces of both reason and clarity. Well done, Venqax.

    Then, too, no one has pointed out that Hagridore mistakenly used the word “case” when the word he or she wanted was “mood,” when talking about the use of “was” and “were.” But that’s ok, Hagridore, because despite your mistake we all knew what you meant to say. Didn’t we? Well, now I’m not so sure we all did.

    In closing my remarks I’ll remind readers that Andre Gide, one of the best French writers of the last century had something to say about all this. He was a strong proponent of “le mot juste,” the right word in the right place.

    I am, I suppose, just another “pretentious ass” as an earlier commenter ranted, merely because I seek to speak with clarity and precision.

  • venqax

    Maeve: Your combat in the trenches every day more than earns you the right to pick your battles!

    As an aside, I would say this provides an example for arguing some actual standards for spelling reform. E.g., Okay, if “we” are going to pronounce it fortay now, then spell it that way. The worst things for development and communication are inconsistency and arbitrariness. This has come up before in discussions about foreign borrowings and at what point they get anglicized. Either you start spelling it halapenyo, or you start saying it jalapeeno. Yama or lama, hoonta or junta, etc. like other languages do.

  • Maeve

    Venqax,
    I just now read your comment from May 7, 2012. I take a chiding from you very seriously indeed. You’ve been my hero for a long time now, Chief Defender in the fight for a standard English dialect, dauntless in the fight against Descriptivists Gone Wild. Unlike me, you never faint in battle. When it comes to the “fort” or “fortay” issue, however, I acknowledge defeat. I’ll continue to say “fort” and suffer funny looks, but I am not going to object anymore to the pronunciation “fortay” as in “Housekeeping is not my forte.” Even the OED has bowed its venerable head as we can see from the pronunciations given for the noun forte:
    ( /ˈfɔːti/ , /ˈfɔːteɪ/ , formerly /fɔːt/ )

  • venqax

    Hagridore:

    There is some point between the absolutist fundamentalism of the purist “rule-followers” and the complete relativism of the “anything goes” set where real sense and maybe even truth prevails.

    Agreed. And that point is where one can actually state a reason why one alternative is preferable–or correct– compared to another. That has been done above, a couple of times. No one has said that the proper pronunciation is FORT with no AY “just cuz”.

    Religion could take a few pointers here.

    I’m not so sure about that. Religion, by its nature, is about absolutes taken on faith, not on compromises or splitting the difference.

    The fact is that language has one purpose…communication.

    True. And it communicates many things both directly and indirectly, explicitly and by implication and inference. One of the things it communicates pretty strongly is the erudition of the speaker or user. Saying fortAY doesn’t communicate good things in that regard.

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