I like to watch the nightly news – yes, those half-hour broadcasts by the mainstream media. I find it interesting to compare how the anchors digest the day’s happenings, what they consider important and which “feel-good” features they close with to lighten the general feeling of gloom.
But lately something in the news has been disturbing me – I mean, beyond Trump, terrorism, health care and climate change.
It’s the word “beloved.”
You see, I am obsessed by words – what they mean, how you use them, how they’re spelled and how they’re pronounced. And lately I’ve noticed that a memo seems to have circulated in Nightly News Land. It apparently decrees, “The word beloved is to be spoken with only two syllables, as in, bee-LOV’D.”
Sure, you could argue that we say loved as a single syllable, so shouldn’t it naturally follow that it would also be bee-lov’d? But that ignores a lot of precedent – as well as the innate quirkiness of our English language.
Beloved is a venerable word that conveys great tenderness and devotion – but only, I maintain, if pronounced in the old-fashioned way. Think of a traditional wedding ceremony. Would anyone begin it by intoning, “Dearly bee -LOV’D, we are gathered here. . .”? It clunks off the tongue. It has the wrong cadence. Instead of sounding solemn, it sounds silly. Naturally, once I began pondering the pronunciation of beloved, I was unable to stop thinking about other words in which the final “ed” is spoken as a separate syllable (denoted by what is called a grave accent: belovèd).
This language obsession is a trait I clearly inherited from my mother – gone now almost 10 years but on my mind so often, and particularly around Mother’s Day. A math and science teacher, she also relished grammar and word play. Beside her armchair sat a table perpetually covered with crossword puzzles, double-crostics and Jumbles. If we were driving and came to a STOP sign, her restless mind would immediately start thinking of all the words that could be assembled from those four letters: post, opts, pots, spot, and so on. We would call and ask each other things like, “Do you know the only four words in the English language that begin with dw?”
Were I able to call her today and tell her my musings on grave accents, she’d have been thinking of èd words day and night.
One of the great joys of my mother’s life was the Sunday New York Times crossword. She would pick at it throughout the week, using a sharpened pencil (never a pen). Sometimes we worked on one together, if I were in town, but I found the puzzles extremely challenging.
A year after she died, my husband had to undergo a massive back surgery. Faced with seven anxious hours in a waiting room, my sister and I hesitantly launched into the Sunday Times crossword. We doubted we could master it, but working together, we succeeded.
Now, we often do the weekly crossword by phone, each with our own copy of the puzzle. I just wish I’d thought to do this with my mother.
Wikipedia says the grave accent, “though rare in English words, sometimes appears in poetry and song lyrics to indicate that a usually-silent vowel is pronounced to fit the rhythm or meter. Most often, it is applied to a word that ends with -ed.”
Fortunately, my husband is an avid reader who also finds the peculiarities of English intriguing, so he endeavored to help me come up with words that fit this category. And there are others that commonly carry the grave accent for some usages, but not for others.
Try reading the following sentences aloud:
- The reporter dogged the politician in a dogged pursuit of the truth.
- The aged crone has not aged well.
- It had been alleged that, in his haste to flee the scene, the alleged killer dropped the bloody knife.
- A learned man once said, “I’ve learned to respect the unknown.”
- It was a blessed relief when the heat broke and the clouds blessed us with rain.
- The supposed leader was supposed to get the legislation passed.
- He crooked his finger, beckoning her down the crooked path. • She legged it toward the finish line of the three-legged race.
- His energy had peaked hours earlier and he was feeling wan and peaked. You get the idea.
There are other, similar words sometimes still spoken with an extra syllable: striped, cursed, curved, winged, marked. But why? I did a bit of research. Some sources said that in the case of beloved, it supposedly (ha, ha) derives from the Middle English past participle beloven (like proven or beholden), meaning loved, so it originally had three syllables before the final “n” was changed to a “d.”
Some websites said the grave-accented syllable is a holdover from the days when all -ed forms were pronounced as /Id/. Now, however, only words that end in -ted or -ded generally get the /Id/ pronunciation. But it sometimes hangs on in religious verses (“Blessèd are the poor”) and in poetry when needed to make the meter come out right, as in this rather strange example from William Blake:
My mother taught me underneath a tree
And sitting down before the heat of day,
She took me on her lap and kissèd me,
And pointing to the east began to say. . .
But that still doesn’t explain supposed, peaked, etc.
I guess the only conclusion to be drawn is that we can pronounce such words as we please. Our language – like life – is rich, diverse, and variable – sometimes elegant, sometimes clunky, sometimes hard to understand. One thing it is not is logical.
So this Mother’s Day, when I think of Donna Binkly in her armchair, pencil in hand, frowning over the Sunday puzzle, I will continue to say belovèd. Sometimes the old ways are best.
Gail Binkly is editor of the Free Press.