The Nation's Pulse

Time for Pundit School

There's cachet in knowing how to pronounce "cache."

By 12.6.06

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Somewhere there should be a "pundit school" where journalists, commentators and politicians of all types would be required to learn how to use and pronounce correctly all names and places.

Among the phenomena of the past several years is the unfortunate prevalence of the mispronunciation of the country, Iraq. According to the Iraqi UN mission it is "ear-rock" not "eye-rack." Also Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan (in which most of its citizens hold the "g" silent), is pronounced "cobble" not "ka-bull" as President Bush, Congressman Murtha, and many others are wont to do.

Most confusing is the term Shia denoting that particular Islamic sect. Shia is not only the name of the sect, but it also refers to those who follow its tenets. That simple four letter word is both singular and plural -- an all purpose noun. Some years ago English-speakers began using the word "Shiite" to refer to Shia followers. Even the famed Middle East authority Bernard Lewis now uses that term from time to time, which suggests the pundit school may have to have a board meeting to settle that one.

Military terms have stumped everyone recently, sometimes even the generals. For instance, the French word "cache," which means "hiding place," has no accent on the "e"; it's pronounced "cash" not "cash-ay." Journalists have had a hard time telling the difference between a service personnel being injured or wounded. The clue is involved with whether an explosion from enemy action -- bomb, mine, bullet, shrapnel, etc. - is involved. In that case the person has been wounded. If their vehicle overturns while speeding and the occupants are hurt, that's when they are "injured."

Military ranks tend to confuse younger journalists who have never covered wars before. A perky young lady from one of the networks seemed to get quite flustered in an interview when she addressed a major general she was interviewing as "major." In the American army when you "make" general, (meaning having been promoted to that rank) you are called "general" no matter whether you are a brigadier, major, or lieutenant general.

Perhaps the most difficult rank to address is that of warrant officer, of which there are several grades. Set between the status of enlisted personnel and commissioned officers, but having all the privileges of the latter, warrant officers are addressed as "mister." Now that is truly arcane.

The world of intelligence is really quite unknown to most people outside of that business, and its terms are often misused by "civilians." Personnel involved in intelligence operations or analysis are intelligence officers, though even that title is questioned by some operational personnel who hold an analyst is an analyst is an analyst. When staff operations personnel are dealing with specific projects they are called "case officers."

Agents in U.S. intelligence operations are individuals "run' by the case officer. Never refer to any of these people as "spies." The only spies are those who work for the enemy! Incongruously the FBI and the Secret Service call their officers "Special Agents." Now that is really confusing. "Operative" is an all purpose term preferred by journalists when they're not quite sure what a person is doing or has done. That may be their choice, but it appears none of the security agencies use "operative" as an official job description for anyone other than their bus drivers.

Americans in general are quite ignorant of the numerous European titles of nobility. American journalists in this instance simply reflect the national antipathy toward such honors, except in the instance of jazz musicians and professional wrestlers. These days most Europeans who have titles prefer to pretend they're "just one of the guys" and decline efforts to address them by their honorific. Just as well, because pundit or not we just don't seem to "get it."

Asia provides a whole new venue for incorrect nomenclature and pronunciation. The Chinese, Vietnamese and Koreans all put their family names first, while the Japanese follow the western style of placing family names last. This is fairly easy to get used to until you arrive in Indonesia or Sri Lanka where people's names can be so long and difficult for westerners to pronounce that shortened versions are often offered up by kind public figures to help out itinerant occidental writers.

Anglo nicknames abound in Asia. General Fidel Ramos of the Philippines liked to be called "Jimmy." There are quite a few "Rocky's" in odd parts of the world these days, though Samoans playing American football loyally insist on being addressed by their traditional names no matter how long and tongue twisting they might be. But then a three hundred pound lineman can be called anything he wants. Just don't mispronounce Pago-Pago (pang-go pang-go)!

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.