“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”?”

  • venqax

    AngryEnglishwoman: NO IT’S NOT! See above.

  • AngryEnglishwoman

    Just wish to advise you that the word ‘forte’ in the context of ‘housework/physics/drama/speaking English is not my forte’ is pronounced FORTAY and not FORT! Please get it right! The emphasis will be on the ‘accents’ which usually do not appear on-line due to keyboard discrepancies but the emphasis still exists, in English, the word Forte, is pronounced (by non dweebs) as FORTAY.

  • Hagridore

    Sigh…besides my misthumbed words above, I left out a word. I meant to say that a clairvoyent may not want to communicate everything they see. 🙂

  • Hagridore

    When I read this discussion, I feel simply awful about it, about being in the presence of such well-educated people who write so well and seem to be so interesting to boot. What? There is dissonance between my choice of words I used to describe my feelings about this discussion and the other words I used to describe my feelings about those participating? Some of you have already gotten my point. For the rest, let me say that there is no dissonance. I’m simply insisting on the correct and standard usage for the word “awful” when it entered American English. The word meant “full of awe”. Today, anyone who used it that way would be at best laughed at. In 20 years, that will be the reaction to anyone still pronouncing our word in question without the “ay” at its end.

    At this point, as a not-so casual observer, and certainly without a humble opinion, I’d say the /fort/ pronunciation has about the same level of acceptance as the word “whom” and the use of “were” instead of “was” as in the sentence, “I wish I were smart enough to remember what the case is called when one uses ‘were’ instead of ‘was’ in this sentence.” All language is evolving. English moreso than most because of its dominance as the world language…a language’s evolution speeds up with its frequency of use.

    Any close examination of any English standard usage rule will find many exceptions…even more than in conjugation of French verbs. English itself is a languwge which was never meant to be. It is the only language…at least major language…that traces its origins equally back to two separate and incompatible language families, Germanic and Romance. That’s where all the insane jumble of “rules” that make up English “standard usage” comes from. If it wasn’t for the success of British empire building and America’s subsequent super power status, English would be little more than a footnote in liquiet history and the world would be speaking something sensible…like Esperanto.

    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. Religion could take a few pointers here. The fact is that language has one purpose…communication. Any usage which gets n the way of this goal is wrong usage. And btw it’s telepahy, not clairvoyence, that may enhance communication. A clairvoyant would necessarily want to communicate everything they see.

    And now for a truly interesting question about evolution.This comment was typed on my Hero smart phone with all “autocorrect” and “autocomplete features turned off. So I have to ask the opinion of this august body which will evolve first…a really good voice recognition program, truly useful auto features or human tuumbs small enough to actually hit only one virtual key at a time and alwyas the one you are aiming for?

  • venqax

    Native English speakers who have had the opportunity to complete eight or more years of formal education ought to have acquired the tools to speak English according to accepted standards of the current century’s version of common usage.

    From your keyboard to God’s monitor, Maeve. But isn’t that THE problem under all this? They DON’T get those tools. If they did, they would have learned, e.g., that it is pronounced “fort” and we wouldn’t need to decide if it is worth the effort to resist a mob. Likewise people would know the differences between effect and affect, they would say “noo-klee-ar”, they would know that enormity has nothing to do with size. Eight years? Most college graduates can’t get this stuff right most of the time.

    Harping on what used to be correct, or
    what an individual speaker insists must be correct is unhelpful.

    Agreed. But forte is not an example of either. It didn’t “used to be” correct. And it isn’t simply insisted on by random individuals who have some ax to grind. The spelling f-o-r-t-e being pronounced “fortay” is not supported by any standard of the English language. Neither is it supported by the rules of French pronunciation whence it comes. It is, thereby, simply wrong, albeit common. Just like chaise lounges, bobbed wire fences, and federal marshalls.

    that is no excuse to condemn a pronunciation that has been accepted by millions of native speakers.

    Yes it is. Not to pretend that the condemnation means much, but it is perfectly valid, even mandatory, to do so if the context calls for it. For example, if you are a TEACHER, FGS! You should correct something that is wrong. Even if it’s not popular. That’s what tenure is for! Lol. Yes, language changes and evolves. But WHY it does so is important. When it changes to meet a new need, good. When it changes due to ignorance and laziness, bad. This is a case of the latter. So it should be resisted whenever it is practical and polite to do so.

  • Maeve

    Shelli,
    Not to mention “purpouse.”

    Slips like these are the reason people who write about language need to remain humble. When I write any opinion about “correctness,” I always try to phrase my remarks politely. I never know what embarrassing typos may slip past me into print.

    I can never understand the thinking of people who not only lay down the law about such and such a usage, but go on to level ad hominem attacks on the speakers and writers who use them.

    “Standard” English is an abstract, changing concept. As you say, common usage dictates correctness. Native English speakers who have had the opportunity to complete eight or more years of formal education ought to have acquired the tools to speak English according to accepted standards of the current century’s version of common usage. Harping on what used to be correct, or what an individual speaker insists must be correct is unhelpful.

    Btw, since writing the post above, I’ve decided that it’s time to accept the pronunciation ‘fortay’ for the forte that means strength. It still bothers me on a personal level, but that is no excuse to condemn a pronunciation that has been accepted by millions of native speakers.

  • Shelli

    Ha! The word “That” I left in front of ‘dictates” after my sloppy editing is not correct.
    Why does something like that always happen after you say something like
    “As a teacher of linguistics”

  • Shelli

    As a teacher of linguistics I need to remind the author that a fundamental rule of the English language is this

    Common usage that dictates correctness.

    This should be self evident, as language is “living” There are no unbreakable rules, it’s not like mathmetics. The purpouse of language is to convey thought pronounciation or spelling may change, but that doesn’t make it wrong, as the pronounciation is not the goal. Therefore, the pronounciation “Fortay” is absolutely correct. The pronounciation of “Cachet” for “Cache” is not correct however as the two words are meant to convey different things. Communication is a beautiful thing, to be preoccupied with rather arbitrary technical correctness rather than content of thought seems sad and pointless to me.

  • jerome

    As ashamed as I am to have been pronouncing that incorrectly for so long, I’m equally excited to use it correctly in the future

  • Matt

    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.

  • venqax

    To say for-tay is simply indefensible. It is pronounced fort in French and the spelling forte would be pronounced fort by any English standard. There is absolutley no English spelling-pronunciation convention which would have the spelling F-O-R-T-E be said “for-tay”. So by either standard– anglicize the french or keep it– for-tay is flatly wrong. Who cares how many people say it that way or would look at you funny if you said it correctly? Many people say excape and expecially and pervent and prevert, too. Don’t be afraid to be correct. FGS, when does this relativism stop?

  • SteveG

    This is just another case of “if enough of us are wrong, we’re right.” By the way, I fall into the “fort” category, but am accepting (grudgingly) of “fortay.” Not the case with cache (“cash”), having grown up near the Cache la Poudre river in Colorado…

  • Jim

    Pls. ignore my own grammatical errors above (comma, “longtime” etc.). Sticky keyboard.

  • Jim

    Mike,
    The author is right and many of us have known it for a longtime. For you to simply say it is accepted is not an answer.
    There is no accent (as most try to write the word) no “t” after the “e” as in cachet,. The writer points out that this word has been mispronounced for so long that it is engrained and on its way to acceptability.
    MW points out the same thing the author here does. But is is still a mistake of conventional translation rules, whether it is accepted or not.

  • Mike

    The author is wrong here. In North America at least (I can’t speak for anglophones in other countries), /fortay/ is perfectly acceptable and probably more correct than /fort/ at this point.

    – The most simple justification is the “smell test”. If you were to tell a group of people that “gardening is not my /fort/”, a few things would happen. Nearly everybody in the room would look at you funny; half probably wouldn’t understand what you just said (or they would, but only because of the context); the other half would just think you sound like a pretentious ass. If the situation got particularly awkward (which it might), you could find yourself in an unfortunate position of having to explain to everyone else how woefully misinformed they are about the language they speak. Saying “gardening is not my /fortay/” isn’t going to draw any attention (except from word snobs).

    – Related philosophical point: language is a fluid and constantly evolving tool, whose chief purpose is communication. Referring to the example above, if you have failed to communicate to your audience, then you have not used language (your tool) effectively. This is the “smell test”, so to speak. Rules of language are fine, and they should be adhered to, but they can never trump this higher principle. Perhaps /fort/ was once the only correct way to pronounce the word. Today it just seems archaic.

    ALSO…

    – It looks like same word has entered twice into modern English usage, with two different pronunciations: from Italian as well as from a (mangled) French – both meaning “(with) strength”. Initially, it seems like context dictated which pronunciation was correct in a given situation. But, as I said, language evolves and American anglophones seem to be choosing to use one over the other. There is no truly good reason why the French pronunciation should win out over the Italian.

    – Tom’s (a commenter) anecdotal point about the correct pronunciation in fencing is particularly interesting (and telling). Marilyn (the next commenter) seems to have completely misinterpreted what he said. By Tom’s account, the fact that “forte” is pronounced /fortay/ in fencing has absolutely nothing to do with weird pronunciations in Quebecois French. It seems like that is just the way it is pronounced, even in France, when fencing. Furthermore, nobody who is native French would pronounce the word the way Marilyn wants to pronounce it anyway.

    – Finally, Bob (another commenter) passed along the Merriam Webster answer to this question. I consider MW to be as authoritative on American English usage as anyone. To me, that seals it.

  • Marilyn

    French is, indeed, the language of fencing; however, anyone who is native French will tell you that Canadian French is unintelligible to them–much the way Glaswegian “English” is to the Scots (and esp. to us). Same thing with Acadien (Cajun) French that’s spoken in Louisiana, which is barely French at all, it has been so far removed from it for so long.

    That NPR correspondent has also been driving me nuts with her “cashay” pronunciation. It is “cash,” period. It is “fort” when one is using the Anglified version of the French word for “strength,” while it is “FORtay” when used as the Italian in musical instruction to indicate “loud/strong.” People do mimic announcers who mispronounce words, believing announcers know best. They used to–when we had well educated graduates leaving our colleges; alas, no longer. The state of higher education has fallen down to the lowest common denominator along with that of our public secondary schools, because while now you can buy a degree, sadly, one cannot buy an education. (Getting an education is acquiring knowledge through the process of experiences among faculty and students that support learning, and the full scope of a proper degree program isn’t something one just “clicks” toward at one’s convenience online at one’s home.)

    The symptoms of our educational system bottoming out at all levels show in a multitude of ways. Those we notice immediately surface through language precisely because that is our primary means of communication (until we might again master clairvoyance as our early hominid versions did–until they mastered spoken language). Our computers don’t use words, but crude symbols akin to cuneiform. We’re reverting to crude linguistic techniques. The breakdown of language is the breakdown of culture, because language is its unifier as the primary communicative means. Cultures that are annihilated or which are overtaken by other cultures will lose their language over time. (Aramaic, for example–the language that Jesus Christ spoke; and now, the Navajo language is nearing extinction, with Scots Gaelic on its way, if it doesn’t receive some prompt attention.) Culture and language are so integral to each other, that when one dies, the other soon follows.

    That said, a dictionary is a volume of work that represents copious amounts of research done by the dictionary’s team of expert editors and staff. It lists the word; its standard, accepted spelling(s) and pronunciation(s); and its definition(s). It does this, however, according to usage. There must be a certain number of “citations” that have been culled throughout the land over a certain period of time; once an adequate sum of these have been acquired, the word warrants inclusion in the dictionary. Some do not warrant inclusion, because the word (usually a slang term) has’t stood the test of time. Many are just a flash in the pan. As with any piece of work, it is only as good as the team that creates it; some are significantly better or worse than others. Some are done to suit specific purposes for specific users’ needs; others try to reach a general audience. (Today, it also might also be made for a certain “market,” and publishers of dictionaries are the same as any others–they are in the business to earn money, not to lose it.)

    One team that is not in any “market” at all is that which heads up the language reference works publishing done by Oxford University in England. There is a work that’s solely meant to be a serious reference volume about the English language’s words. One doesn’t use this multi-volume Oxford English Dictionary lightly (O.E.D.–20 volumes, plus supplements). By this, I mean merely to look up correct spellings or definitions for one’s English 101 paper, but, rather, to research any English word’s history from its earliest usages onward. To say, “I looked it up in the O.E.D. and it is spelled/pronounced/means…” says less about the word in question than it does about the person who said it. This statement means he’s trying to make an impression–and is doing so, because those in-the-know realize one doesn’t refer to this work to get a spelling, pronunciation, or definition, but rather, to learn the word’s entire lifespan and usage in the English-speaking world, and to determine whether it still lives and breathes as always, or has changed–perhaps it is even on its last legs. For any word to be included in a dictionary, usually it has to have been cited for at least a couple of years, preferably longer. (Furthermore, this is a dictionary for British English moreso than for American English. There is an Oxford American Language Dictionary.) There is also a little matter of practicality: This O.E.D. costs about $1300 (plus shipping), and volumes will be, for example, A-Be; Bea-Cip, etc., making it impossible to carry around as a handy reference guide; it is meant to be purely a reference “set,” which is almost always bought exclusively by and housed in a libraries. (Even the smaller, “compact” two-volume set is hefty–and requires a magnifying glass to read it; they do include the glass with the book, however. It’s “only” in the mid-$300 range.) Clearly, this is a work suited to the language scholar (and that doesn’t necessarily mean an English scholar). Libraries (or individuals) can now subscribe to gain entry to the newly launched online O.E.D.; British users have free access through their libraries.

    Every English department–and/or English professor–will have a preferred dictionary and grammar/usage guide they recommend their students use, which they’ll note in their syllabus at the semester’s start. Some prefer the Webster’s New World or the Webster’s New World College; others prefer the Random House Unabridged; others like the Merriam Webster’s Collegiate, or the American Heritage College, and…. You get the idea. If one is in college, then follow the recommendations given there. If one wants it for other specific purposes, then one must do some research, depending on the main goals the user has in mind. Everyone has their individual prefernces, and specific reasons for having them. An American who just wants to quickly get an idea of correct spelling or a quick definition can get by with a small, light-weight, $30 Merriam’s, Webster’s, or American Heritage.

  • Tom

    As a fencer, I find it interesting that American (and Canadian, not sure about British, etc) fencing coaches universally pronounce “forte” as “for-tay”, when referring to the strong part of a weapon. This includes coaches who have emigrated from France and other parts of Europe. Additionally, French is the primary language of fencing; all international referees must use French and the majority of the terminology is Franco-derived as well.

  • duke

    you didn’t answer the question: forte or fortë?

  • Maeve

    Curtis J,
    If “cache” were governed by English spelling rules, then your argument would carry more weight.

    However, cache is a French word that has been anglicized with French spelling and pronunciation. In addition, some English words do not conform to the “e makes the vowel say its name” rule. For example, “have.”

  • Curtis J

    I like to follow these simple phonics rules for the word Cashe:

    When a syllable ends in a consonant and has only one vowel, that vowel is short. Examples: “fat, bed, fish, spot, luck”.

    When a syllable ends in a silent “e”, the silent “e” is a signal that the vowel in front of it is long. Examples: “make, gene, kite, rope, use, taste, and baste”.

    So it should be pronounced Kaysh

  • Bob

    From Merriam Webster

    usage 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 rhyme it with English for. So you can take your choice, knowing that someone somewhere will dislike whichever variant you choose. All are standard, however. In British English \ˈfȯ-ˌtā\ and \ˈfȯt\ predominate; \ˈfȯr-ˌtā\ and \fȯr-ˈtā\ are probably the most frequent pronunciations in American English.

  • Cindy Cotter

    When American speakers pronounce “foible,” they use common rules of English. That makes sense to me. When they put an extra syllable on “forte” they are violating the rules of English and French in a mistaken attempt to give the word a foreign flavor. I consider that a lot less sensible.

    I am reminded of an awful sign at a local mall declaring that the place is a “shopping centre” with an accent over the last “e.” The practice says more about putting on airs by trying (in a mangled way) to sound European than it does about honoring one’s native language.

  • AM

    Had no idea about the “forte” pronunciation. Thanks for letting us know!

  • Tom

    The original post is generally correct as far as pronunciation of the Italian forte [for tay] and French [fort]. However thise words are now English and we will pronounce them with our own distict sensitivities. In my dialect of ENGLISH, a [fort] is a stronhold and a [for tay] is a strength, while [for tay] is also loud when talking music.

    Interestingly, the author does not suggest that we pronounce “foible” as [fwa blə]. We use the English version of a once French word [foy bul]

  • Maeve

    Geoff and Pierre,
    My response to your comments has gone on so long that I’ve decided to submit it as a post called Battle of the Dictionaries.

  • Geoff Foster

    And what about this one – I have never known before now:

    cadre |ˌkɑːdə| |ˌkɑːdr(ə)| |ˌkadri|
    noun
    a small group of people specially trained for a particular purpose or profession : a small cadre of scientists.
    • |ˌkeɪdə| a group of activists in a communist or other revolutionary organization.
    • a member of such a group.

    How about that!

  • Geoff Foster

    But the desktop dictionary on my Mac (Oxford American) says:

    forte 1 |ˌfɔːteɪ| |ˌfɔːti| |fɔːt|
    noun
    1 [in sing. ] a thing at which someone excels : small talk was not his forte.
    2 Fencing the stronger part of a sword blade, from the hilt to the middle.

    So – take your pick!

  • Pierre B

    I wonder if a future post, you could clarify the proper pronounciation of another French word that is increasingly used in English: Niche.

    As a francophone, I do not understand why native English speakers pronounce this word as “nitch”. There is no T!!! (this pronunciation makes it sound like Nietzsche.

  • Andrew Flusche

    I learned something valuable today. And I always thought that language was my forte, although I pronounce it incorrectly.

    Thanks!

  • Krissy

    I am totally guilt of this with forte – I had no idea! Thanks!

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