When MSNBC dumped the brash and union-boosting radio guy Ed Schultz in favor of Chris Hayes on the network’s 8 p.m. time slot, it sent the message that it was going for brainier fare. At the time of the announcement, Hayes issued one of those predictable statements: “I am thrilled to be joining Rachel and Lawrence in primetime. I’ve absolutely loved hosting UP on the weekends and I’m looking forward to thinking through the news five nights a week.”
Not to mention thinking through the English language.
A segment from Hayes’s show on Friday night stopped the Erik Wemple Blog in its linguistic tracks. The host was launching into a rant about the Obama administration’s scandals/”scandals” (depending on your viewpoint). In doing so, he brandished a May 16 letter from the Heritage Action America urging House leaders not to get distracted from hounding the Obama administration. “[I]t would be imprudent to do anything that shifts the focus from the Obama administration to the ideological differences within the House Republican Conference.”
Hayes took it from there: “And while that letter’s brazen intransigence was enough to make your head want to explode, I have a theory….” Now watch the video below, at 1:53. Now try it again.
Hayes is clearly plowing new ground here. For about four decades, the Erik Wemple Blog has been listening to people use the word “brazen,” though never the way Hayes did on Friday night. It sounded like “rosin” with a “b” on the front end: “braahzn.” Sophisticated, in other words.
Clearly we missed something. Every native of Schenectady, N.Y., after all, learns sooner or later that people have different ways of pronouncing words like “schedule” and “divisive.” And just as Hayes is ahead of us on the failings of the American meritocracy, surely he knows a thing or two about “brazen” that had eluded us.
However: A look at the 200-lb. Random House Dictionary in the home of the Erik Wemple Blog turned up a single pronunciation, the one that just about all people use. “brā’zen.” Or “breizn.” Rhyming with “brayin’.”
So we turned to — what else! — experts.
Paul Kay, a linguistic professor at the University of California, Berkely: “I’ve never heard that pronunciation before.”
Paul Fry, an English
linguistics professor at Yale University: “I’ve never heard the word pronounced that way, but who knows, it may be a trend!”
A trend, that is, to which Nexis is not yet hip. The info-service’s transcript recorded Hayes’s monologue as if it didn’t even understand the word: “And while that letter`s intransigence is enough to make your head want to explode, I have a theory…”
Chip Gerfen, of American University, provided further on-the-record confirmation of Hayes’s originality, plus some helpful discussion of just how this groundbreaking moment could have come about:
I’m not aware of that pronunciation (i.e. “brahzen”) being a commonly attested variant for “brazen.” That is, to my knowledge, “brazen” isn’t a word like “creek” which has “crick” and “creek” as two pronunciation variants, or “economics” where some people say the first vowel with an “e” as in “seen” and some with an “e” as in “met.” Or “aunt” and “tomato” and so on.
Historically, the word comes from the Old English root for “brass” [bræs] plus the suffix [-en]. In any case, Chris Hayes might have been trying to sound really formal and learned (the trying too hard interpretation), or he might not have ever heard the word (the unlikely interpretation), or he might have just read it off the teleprompter and gotten it wrong on the fly (probably the likely story), or it’s part of his dialect and there is a group of American English speakers who say it that way (a dialect feature I’m just not familiar with).
Hayes didn’t respond to a request for comment, and we will refrain from speculating on the provenance or significance of Hayes’s “braahzen” moment.
UPDATE 9:10 a.m. 5/21: Lynn Staley, the Harrington and Shirley Drake professor of the humanities & renaissance studies at Colgate University, notes, “Sounds to me like a put-on English accent.”
UPDATE 9:51 a.m.: More expert feedback rolls in—this time from Linda K. Coleman, an associate professor of English at the University of Maryland. Coleman sees this anomaly as a possible instance of “hypercorrection,” which she defines as “trying to sound more a member of a group than you are. And usually, trying to sound more intellectual or literate than you are,” she tells the Erik Wemple Blog.
And here’s her long response, via e-mail:
Every source I’ve found gives the standard “long-a” pronunciation. The word is formed from “brass,” of course, although most people who use it may not think of the connection, particularly as we can use “brass” as a modifier, as in “brass door handle.” The spelling of “brazen” is straightforward, with the “a” followed by a single consonant followed by a vowel, which should signal a simple “long a.”
If I had to come up with an explanation–and I’m not sure I can–I might point out that Americans tend to feel that the “ah” pronunciation of the written vowel “a” is somehow classier, and certainly more British (hence of course classier). But usually the British “ah” pronunciation occurs in cases where Americans have our own “short a” as in “path, dance,” and so on. (I’m getting a bit off topic here, but there are a couple of nice examples of Americans using “ah” instead of short a. One is in the borrowed French word “lingerie.” The first syllable in French has a vowel closest to our vowel in “can,” but the American pronunciation uses the “ah” vowel.) I haven’t managed to come up with any cases where the “ah” pronunciation would replace long a, as has happened here.
I suppose I could also point out that English spelling is problematic to begin with. We can probably all remember sounding out a word based on its spelling and finding out that we had it dead wrong. Look at all the ways we have of pronouncing the letter “a.” Certainly, Hayes’ “ah” is one of them. But this is a case where English spelling works quite well. I can’t find a reason for the vowel to be other than long-a.
Correction: Post originally identified Paul Fry as a professor of linguistics, when in fact he’s a professor of English.