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