If a judge mispronounces a word in open court, should you say it the right way – or should you go along with the error to avoid embarrassing the judge?
Either way, you’re on the hot seat. And though it might sound like a small matter, it happens in big situations.
Consider the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court case of Lockhart v. United States, where during oral arguments Justice Elena Kagan pronounced the word “antecedent” as “an-TESS-a-dent.” Some observers were baffled as to what she was talking about.
“The pronunciation was so unconventional that I could not have been the only one in the courtroom who needed to hear the word two or three times before having any idea what the justice was trying to say,” says Regent University School of Law Professor James Duane in this article.
When it came time for one of the attorneys to use the word, the standard pronunciation (ant-a-SEED-ent) was used.
Years earlier, Chief Justice William Rehnquist referred to the plaintiff in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals as “Dow-bair” instead of the correct “Daw-bert.” The lawyer for the Daubert family made a strategic decision to mispronounce his own client’s name rather than point out the chief justice’s error.
Then there is the word “certiorari,” which according to Professor Duane (who is something of a pronunciation pundit) has been subject to at least six different pronunciations by Supreme Court justices.
Take the Pronunciation Quiz
Legal wordsmith Bryan Garner is editor-in-chief of Black’s Law Dictionary and an ABA Journal contributor. He came up with the following pronunciation test (answers appear below):
1. Acumen: (a) uh-KYOO-muhn (b) AK-yuh-muhn
2. Alleged: (a) uh-LEJD (b) uh-LEJ-id
3. Applicable: (a) AP-li-kuh-buhl (b) uh-PLIK-uh-buhl
4. Brooch: (a) BROHCH (b) BROOCH
5. Cache: (a) KASH (b) KASH-ay
6. Chicanery: (a) shi-KAY-nuhr-ee (b) chi-KAY-nuhr-ee
7. Clandestine: (a) klan-DES-tin (b) KLAN-di-styn
8. Coherent: (a) koh-HEER-int (b) koh-HAIR-int
9. Comity: (a) just like comma tea (b) just like comedy
10. Commensurate: (a) kuh-MEN-shuur-it (b) kuh-MEN-syuur-it
11. Comptroller: (a) kuhn-TROH-luhr (b) KOMP-troh-luhr
12. Concierge: (a) kon-see-AIRZH (b) kon-see-AIR
13. Controversial: (a) kon-truh-VUHR-shuhl (b) kon-truh-VUHR-see-uhl
14. Coup de grace: (a) koo-duh-GRAHS (b) koo-duh-GRAH
15. Coupon: (a) KOO-pon (b) KYOO-pon
16. Debacle: (a) di-BAH-kuhl (b) DEB-uh-kuhl
17. Disparate: (a) DIS-puh-rit (b) di-SPAIR-it
18. Divisive: (a) di-VY-siv (b) di-VIS-iv
19. Dour: (a) rhymes with lure (b) rhymes with sour
20. Educate: (a) EJ-i-kayt (b) ED-yoo-kayt
21. Electoral: (a) i-LEK-tuh-ruhl (b) ee-lek-TOR-uhl
22. Entirety: (a) en-TY-uhr-tee (b) en-TY-ruh-tee
23. Environment: (a) en-VY-urn-muhnt (b) en-VYR-muhnt
24. Err: (a) UHR (b) AIR
25. Fiancé or fiancée: (a) fee-ahn-SAY (b) fee-AHN-say
26. Government: (a) GUHV-urn-mint (b) GUH-vuhr-mint
27. Hegemony: (a) hi-JEM-uh-nee (b) HEJ-uh-moh-nee
28. Juror: (a) JOOR-uhr (b) JOOR-or
29. Kudos: (a) KOO-dahs (b) KOO-dohz
30. Lien: (a) LEEN (b) LEE-uhn
31. Litigious: (a) li-TIJ-uhs (b) li-TIJ-ee-uhs
32. Mayoral: (a) MAY-uhr-uhl (b) may-OR-uhl
33. Niche: (a) rhymes with ditch (b) rhymes with quiche
34. Succinct: (a) suhk-SINGKT (b) suh-SINGKT
35. Usury: (a) YOO-zhuh-ree (b) yoo-SUHR-ee
The correct answer to every question is (a). So how did you do?
- SSRN https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2943459
- Law.com http://www.law.com/sites/almstaff/2017/04/12/so-awkward-what-to-do-when-a-justice-butchers-a-pronunciation-from-the-bench/
- ABA Journal http://www.abajournal.com/news/article/should_lawyers_repeat_a_judges_mispronunciation_this_justice_mangled_antece
- ABA Journal http://www.abajournal.com/magazine/article/is_your_pronunciation_on_point_take_this_quiz_to_find_out
- ABA Journal http://www.abajournal.com/magazine/article/30_more_words_to_test_your_pronunciation_skills