The Grammarphobia Blog

Talking the talk

Q: It seems to me there are two standards of pronunciation: one for public radio and another for the public at large. Examples: BY-oh-pic on NPR versus by-OP-ic everywhere else; car-NEGG-y on the radio versus “CAR-nuh-gee”; huh-RASS versus HAIR-us. It’s driving me crazy! Who’s correct?

A: The word “biopic” may look like a term in ophthalmology, but it’s not pronounced that way. It’s a relatively new word for a film biography, formed from the terms “bio” (pronounced BY-oh, for “biography”) and “pic” (for “picture”). It’s properly pronounced BY-oh-pic.

“Biopic” has been in use since the early 1950s, and we have the editors of Variety to thank. Here are a couple of early citations from the Oxford English Dictionary:

1951, from the Memphis Commercial Appeal:
” ‘Variety’ coins another word for show biz – ‘biopic,’ meaning a biographical film.”

1975, from the Toronto Globe & Mail: “Warners … dares to document the social problems of the time … educating an unsophisticated audience with its historical and medieval bio-pics.”

As for “Carnegie,” there are differences of opinion.

Both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) list two pronunciations: CAR-nuh-gee and (roughly) car-NAIG-gee.

Andrew Carnegie was born in Scotland and pronounced his name as the Scots do, with the accent on the second syllable.

In his Autobiography of Andrew Carnegie, he wrote that as boys, he and his cousin George Lauder called each other “Dod” and “Naig,” and that Carnegie was always “Naig” to his Scottish relatives.)

In Pittsburgh, where Carnegie made his reputation as a captain of industry, people still pronounce his name car-NAIG-ee (though when run together, it sounds more like car-NEGG-y).

But the far more common American pronunciation is CAR-nuh-gee. The first syllable is also stressed in the names of Carnegie Hall, Carnegie-Mellon University, and Dale Carnegie.

As for “harass,” it has two legitimate pronunciations – huh-RASS and HAIR-us. The choice is up to you – and NPR.

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