Tuesday, July 13, 2010

When Is a Vase a Vahz?

According to my dear departed Mummy Darling, "Never!"  

When instructing her children in the correct American English pronunciation of the word used for the vessel designed to hold cut flowers, Mummy Darling (also known as "MD") insisted that the only acceptable pronunciation for "vase" is when it rhymes with "place."

Which of these vases is a vahz?

She was adamant that we, her offspring, should never pronounce "vase" as "vahz," because she considered doing so to be a contemptible genteelism, much like extending one's little finger when holding a tea cup.  She said that she didn't care a whit that certain American dictionaries may list "vahz" as an alternate, or acceptable, pronunciation to "vase."  She believed such pronunciation to be entirely unacceptable for those in our class, which she referred to as "our kind" (not without irony). "Vahz," she said, was a clear marker that the person who pronounced it thus either didn't know any better--and was to be pitied--or they thought it sounded "refined"--and therefore French-ified in a pretentious middle-class way--and were to be avoided.  One may tolerate such people, but one doesn't invite them to dinner.

Now, I believe there are a number of reasons that pronouncing "vase" as "vahz" stuck in MD's craw.  It was not solely a function of her snobbism, which she was certainly not immune to, although if you accused her of it she would bristle with righteous indignation: "Don't be horrid, Reggie, I am not a snob.  I'm a registered Democrat!"  It may also have had something to do with the imprecision of determining when a vase might actually become a vahz that she found unacceptable, for she was a great stickler, as was my father, for using precise and unpretentious language.

Many of the people I have quizzed about what differentiates a vahz from a vase have said they believe a vahz is a larger, more costly, and more elaborate vessel than the ordinary and utilitarian vase.  In other words, a vahz is a bigger, fancier, more valuable version of a vase.  But in my view--and this is where I agree with MD--determining the tipping point on the continuum from vase to vahz is too imprecise and too subjective to support its acceptable usage.  It reminds me of what Justice Potter Stewart (Yale '37) famously wrote in his opinion in the landmark 1964 Supreme Court obscenity case of Jacobellis v. Ohio: "Hard-core pornography" is hard to define, but "I know it when I see it."  It is the difficulty of defining when a vase becomes a vahz that ultimately condemns vahz.  At least here in America.

While I have generally gone along with many of the lessons my mother taught me growing up, there are certain pronunciations of words that MD favored to which I no longer subscribe--more for generational reasons than otherwise, I suppose.  Unlike MD, I cannot bring myself to refer to a tomato as a "tuh-mahh-toe," and I can't pronounce mayonnaise as "my-uh-nezz," as she did.  Such pronunciations sound comically archaic to me in 2010.  I, too, long ago gave up pronouncing envelope as "on-vuh-lope," preferring instead the more commonly acceptable "en-vuh-lope."  However, just as I would never consider chewing gum in public (a punishable offense in our household when I was a boy), I also toe the line when it comes to saying "vase" instead of "vahz," which is something I would never do.

That is, unless I'm joking . . .

Photo by Boy Fenwick


  1. "Two nations separated by a common language" - in English it's always "vahz".

    1. Despite the fact that there are more English speakers in the US than in England? Not that that justifies anything, but still, any nation not wanting it's language severely changed wouldn't engage in colonialism. The English, however, did, and now must deal with our pronunciation of things in popular media. Too bad for them.

    2. Also, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, "Amer.Eng. preserves the original Eng. pronunciation (Swift rhymes it with face, Byron with place and grace), while British Eng. shifted mid-19c. to preference for a pronunciation that rhymes with bras."

      So perhaps you can just think of us as safeguarding the original form of the word for the British, while they assault their own language and accuse us of the same.

  2. Hi Reggie-

    There is a much bigger issue here. Pronunciation is fungible--as you noted you changed from 'onvelope' to 'envelope' etc. Times change, pronunciations change, new words are coined ('friending') and new ideas are embraced and we move forward.
    There are actually several variations I have noted on the 'vase':
    'vayze' and 'vayce' and even 'vawze' are enunciations I have heard in various parts of the country. All of them grate on my ear--and yet I understand the meaning. I think we can be tolerant of many pronunciations (potato, potahto, pro-duce, prod-uce) and learn to love our differences.
    cheers, DIANE

  3. The pronunciation really should come down to where one is born - vase spoken as vahze if one is British and vase to rhyme with place if one is American. Thus, I can go either way, but have kept the pronunciation of my youth. My accent is still British after all these years so I say tomahto rather than tomayto but not for any snobbish reasons - that's just how I say it. My-uh-nez as a pronunciation I never learned even in the days of making my own - mayo works quite well, I find, either side of the pond.

    A pronunciation that really does not work for me is settay rather than settee - almost as bad as conci-air instead of concierge.

  4. Columnist: Absolutely, that is why I was careful to distinguish MD's instruction in the "correct" pronunciation of vase as being in American English. It does not peeve me when I hear my British friends pronounce it as you describe, for it is appropriate that they do so.

    DDS: Thank you. I, like you, celebrate the differences and diversity of this nation. However, I believe one must make choices in matters of pronunciation for oneself, and this is an obvious one, at least for me.

    Blue: I agree, vahz sounds appropriate to me when spoken by those who adhere to the Queen's English, but it is like fingernails on a blackboard to my ear when said by an American. I had forgotten about the deliciousness of "Conci-air," thank you for noting it.

  5. I tend to agree that vahz sounds so ridiculous and luckily rarely hear it. However, if I had ever said "en-vuh-lope" as opposed to the correct "on-vuh-lope" as a child I'm sure I would have gotten some nasty looks from my family!

  6. My step-mother was ever on the lookout for piss elegant pronunciations, words and phrases- as you point out with your usual spot on accuracy, the verbal equivalent of the raised pinky. Her particular bete noirs were "luncheon" for the mid day meal, "home" for the place you live and "drapes" or, even worse "drapery" for those things around your window. I was about 12 years old when someone, in conversation, referred to an expensive apartment building as "exclusive". I thought that my step mother would blow a gasket. Now, about "vase": I think that it should be correctly pronounced to rhyme with "faze", a nice compromise between rhyming it with "face" or saying it as VAAAHHZZ. But what do I know. I'm embarressed to admit that I still pronounce that red summer fruit as TOH MAH TOE if I don't catch myself. I also say "TUR KWAZ" for that wonderful blue green color, though I'm not sure where i picked this up, and I find it an awfully hard habit to break.

    On a separate, but related topic: A dear friend's mother told me that years ago (1940's I would guess),she was a new student at Foxcroft. At an early lunch(eon), bananas were served. (Was this a trap?). She picked one up and began to peal it, only to have the teacher at the head of the table slam down her utensils and bellow, "Never let me see you eating like a monkey again", and proceeded to demonstrate how a banana can be eaten with a knife and fork. My friend's mother demonstrated. It takes the thought process behind VAAHHHZZZ to a whole new level.

  7. The only 'grating' pronunciation I can think of
    is my MD teaching: tomahto... Now she was a very 'continental'/international, human being- so that is where that comes from.
    I like the ah sound, much more than ay, in this case.I agree it can be spun into an obnoxious
    nasal noise-or not.

  8. Once in a while, those affected pronunciations are endearing, don't
    you think? A pokey entrance hall is referred to as a Foyer or rather
    Foy-ay. That sort of thing can either set your teeth on edge or make
    you smile inwardly. Personally I'd rather hear Vahz any day of the week
    than have to accept a term like "friending."
    And then there's Valet Parking. With the word Valet pronounced like
    Ballet. (Groan.....)

  9. "Don't be horrid, Reggie, I am not a snob. I'm a registered Democrat!"

    I can't stop laughing ...

    (BTW, that the extended little finger is said to date back to the introduction of tea to the denizens of Gin Lane. Which gives it just the right sort of provenance -- a "ginteelism," if you like.)

  10. I have never, ever said Vahz (except, as you do, when joking). I say my oh nez, and I have no idea how or why, as it is certainly not the down east Maine pronunciation of the word; I say tomayto and tomahto interchangeably in about 70/30 ratio (and would like to reduce that to 100 per cent in favor of tomayto), which interestingly, is the ratio in which I hear it in the world I inhabit ( a bad unconscious mimic, I tend to speak in the accent of the person with me at the moment. Hence in a day of summer shopkeeping, I can go from Southern to east coast lockjaw to Brooklynese in the span of a single hour---most embarrassing, and apparently incurable.) As for onvelopes, I plead guilty and see no reason to change it, unlike tomawto, which I hate hearing escape my lips.

    If only mothers now were teaching their children not to use cellphones in public (the 21st century mutation of public gum chewing)---except of course, the mothers are doing it themselves.

  11. Fun post. In my little book of quirkiness, it's a vahz if I paid over 100 dollars for it!

  12. >>>"Don't be horrid, Reggie, I am not a snob. I'm a registered Democrat!"

    I had to chuckle at this. It's so similar to things I've heard my aunts say that I almost felt like I was a teenager sitting at the dinner table again.

  13. So much is regionally determined. Take the region of the USA called Appalachia...

    --if and only if you live on the side of that mountain range, or thereabouts, from the Mason Dixon on down into Georgia, you can call it Appa-latchya.

    --If you live on the side of the range from the Mason Dixon line going north, you call it Appa-laishya. (Maine is where all the Frenchies are, after all.)

    --If you come from elsewhere, like Noo York or one of those godawful places, and say Appa-laitchya, no one will sell you any gas. Go away.

    Oh, and there are pronunciations that are essentially politically- and historically-motivated snubs. Have you ever read the Byron poem Don Jewann? Or seen a production of Waiting for God-oh?

    (I also hate the substitution of "home" for "house." I hate it when people base their ideas of refinement on cheap marketing ploys. Do not get me started on the diamond cartels.)

    I say "vayce." People who said anything else were just silly. Bless your dear sweet unsnobbish Democratic mother's soul.

  14. Oh my, I'm late to the party again. Well in my case, what can i say...English learned as a second language in a NE boarding school. I do say on velope, but say tomayto, but for the past 10 years have been wondering about the vaze/vase deblacle. Glad we've cleared that up.

  15. Magnuspetrie: Granny Darling (born in 1893) did say "luncheon" but MD did not, would in fact snort derisively when anyone of a younger generation to Granny did. I use "luncheon" and "bruncheon" ironically and for fun at times here on RD but never use them in speaking, except playfully.

    Izzy: I remember your mother well, and as a boy thought she was English when I first met her, given the way she spoke. It is only as an adult that I came to understand that she was an American aristocrat of the old school, and spoke as one with a clipped English-influenced accent, which she and her kind were carefully raised to do, and so in her case was entirely appropriate.

  16. Magnuspetrie: PS, that Foxcroft story is a stitch, I shall always remember what that teacher said with pleasure. Reminds me slightly of the time when I was a boy and attending a country day school in Virginia (not that far from Foxcraft, actually) where we were forbidden to use anything other than a knife and fork when eating fried chicken, which seemed perplexingly absurd to me at the time, and laughably so today.

  17. Oh my, this brought back memories. When I went to boarding school in Washington, DC, in 1959, I was completely shocked to discover that fried chicken was to be eaten using knife and fork. At home, there were very, very few food items we were allowed to pick up and eat, but fried chicken had always been on the list.

    I do still say on-velope for the paper product, I just can't help it.

  18. I still say on-velope. The things that cover windows are curtains, and the stuffed thing that more than one person can sit on is a sofa. You wipe your mouth with a napkin.

    Remember how grumpy it made Father when our accents got polluted by association with locals at the farm? Bewwnsburra for Boonesboro was anathema!

    DED: I, too, am apt to slide into the accent of others. When I go to the UK everyone thinks I am from the opposite part of the country. I feel like an idiot when I realize I have done a chameleon shift, but unless I concsiously avoid it I am helpless. I also cannot harmonize while singing. Put me next to a soprano I will attempt to sing high, next to an alto I sing low. Do you find this true as well?

    Ah, gum. I still cannot chew gum in the presence of another human being. But I no longer eat pizza with a knife and fork...

    Happy Birthday, Little Brother!


  19. You missed most of my MD's early dedication to French- torture of tortures- Please remind me to tell you some of those horrible, life changing scenarios when we visit !

  20. Oh no, Reggie. We British can't believe you'd say anything as comic -and common - as vase to rhyme with faze. A vase is a vahz this side of the pond. (There are people who call it a vawse but they are off their heads.)

    I think it must be true that we are two nations separated by a common language.

  21. yes,yes HaPee Buth'Daa RegGee Dawlin'! I can only assume the correct pronunciation for anything comes from Georgie in Mapp and Lucia- that is where one born on the wrong side of the Empire goes to for the King's English, No?
    (as per our convaShaShun- my GranMa always said she wuz a Bap'ist and a Democrat- that would be a disciple of the Dixiecrats, yee gawds-an lit'l catfish.,xo,lit'l dawlin' aw'gry.

  22. Dear Reggie, How many times have you heard the word house and the word home confused as one. My mother would always correct the person no matter who used the word incorrectly or when. Thanks for memories.

  23. Camilla and Hermione: I confess, I still sometimes say on-vuh-lope, too, but like DED and Magnuspetrie do with tomato, I wince when I do so. And to really bare it all, I do still sometimes say to-mah-toe. Usually when I'm either tired, or drunk, or both. Reggie aspires to perfection, but he so rarely achieves it. And, thank you, Hermione, it was lovely.

  24. According to Judith Martin aka Miss Manners, "A vase is a vahz when it's filled with dahzies."

    Which is another way of saying, "Never!" I suppose.

    Y'all might be interested in Charles Harrington Elster's The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations


    This all brings to mind the George and Ira Gershwin song

    "Let's call the whole thing off"

    "Let's call the whole thing off " on skates


  25. Reggie, DAHling! Love your blog, how have I not discovered it sooner? Witty post, I appreciate the whole vase/vahz controversy, but my favorite line of the post was "I am NOT a snob, I'm a registered Democrat!" Love it! Happy to find you, will be following. Cheers!

  26. Oh, I love this. My view is that you can say it either way, as long as that's the way you've always said it: no changing horses midstream. Changing your pronunciation to be like everybody else isn't necessary & doing it just to be different is hokey. Still, I don't expect people to conform to MY way of doing everything, at least, not when it comes to stuff like pronunciation. No, I prefer to save my corrections for issues that really matter--say, magazines fanned out across a table doctor's-waitng-room style.

    But "vase"...

    Every major holiday, my far-flung family used to gather down at my grandmother's house for a few days, and we were always welcome to bring along college pals, girlfriends, anybody with nowhere else to go. We always had a good time. One year my brother showed up with a brand-new girlfriend, whom none of us had met before. She was pretty, well-dressed & obviously, she had good intentions, because she showed up with an armful of spotted lilies wrapped in crinkly paper, and what's more did it back in the day before you could pick up a last-minute bouquet at Wal-Mart.

    The rest of the family was still hugging & shaking hands when my brother took the bouquet from her arms, looked around & said in an oddly refined voice, "Grandmother, where is the Lalique vaahhhzz?"

    There was a moment of silence, then my grandmother broke out laughing & my middle brother--the actor, naturally--said in his snootiest English accent "Dammit, Jeeves dropped the bloody thing in the conservatory yesterday and Grandmother had to sack the bugger!" That's when everyone else busted up.

    Well, the pretty girl never came back, but the question about the Lalique vaaaahhhzz comes back on a periodic basis, most memorably at the vistation after my grandmother died, when it set off an unseemly fit of giggles among the sadly bereaved--or, at least, among all of us but one.

  27. Per my mother, a lady does not chew gum or smoke in public and definitly doesn't walk with her hands in her pockets, although that may have been to protect very expensive orthodontia........

  28. is your mother my mother, too? they sound identical.


  29. Love this post RD. I am the product of the unholy union of a Boston Brahmin father and a genteel southern belle. Suffice it to say my great aunts spent most of our Cape Cod summers smoothing out my budding southern drawl via covert diction lessons. My mother was not thrilled when I returned to the south after labor day saying things like "No thank you, I have had an elegant sufficiency of your innumerable delicacies but anything more would cause a gastronomical catastrophe..."

  30. Dear Reggie,

    I adore this post and have read it many times. I am still at loss on how to correctly pronounce foyer. Growing up in the low South with parents fluent in French and relatives whose accents could give Sally Kato a run for her money, I was often confused on the correct pronuciation of many words. How did MD instruct you to pronounce foyer?

    Always a greatful reader,
    R Lord

  31. I tend to say "on-vuh-lope" and "tuh-may-toe" and always rhyme "vase" with "place." I am from Colorado. I also pronounce "pin" and "pen" identically, which I assume is regional more than familial. Alternate pronunciations of things don't tend to irk me too much, with the possible exception of the Southern pronunciation of "crayon" as something nearing "crown." I'm also not too fond of the British pronunciation of "zebra" as "zehh-brah" or "Aeroplane", as the Wright brothers invented it (at least the first working one) here, so in this rare case our pronunciation should be considered the original.


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