I was watching television the other day and the character, a man in a suit, described another character as dour. The character pronounced the word like do-er, as in, somebody who gets a lot done. Dewar, like the scotch my father orders when we are out at a nice restaurant. Dooer, like an overly sympathetic person saying, “Oh you poor dear!"
All my life I have been saying dour, like sour, like a dowager and her unfortunate hump. Like glower!
Dour means relentlessly severe, stern, or gloomy in manner or appearance. One of the tricks I learned studying for the GRE was to hazard a guess at an unknown word’s positive or negative connotation. Toady, for example, was a word that definitely sounded negative. When I got home from the test and looked it up, I saw I was right. Toady means a person who behaves obsequiously to someone important. Toady is pronounced exactly how you might imagine.
In the car on the way to the mall yesterday, I asked the other two writers in the car how they would pronounce d-o-u-r.
"Dower," they agreed.
"Wrong!" I shouted.
"Impossible," they scoffed. "Really?" they asked, again. I turned in my seat to watch them digest the difficult information. The same as I had, they seemed agitated by the truth.
We agreed that nobody in the world is worse at pronouncing words than writers, though you might think it would be the opposite. I scored pretty high on my verbal GRE, much higher than most of the law and business school hopefuls that take the test, but for a long time I thought lingerie was a delicate French underwear made of lace and lounge-er-ray was regular bras and underwear from Victoria’s Secret or JC Penney.
Writers are also readers, spending hour after hour immersed in a world of symbols on page or screen. They—we—begin to cultivate our own pronunciations. Home-grown grammar. Backwater, memory-soaked definitions. And so, to discover that somebody else has come before, that any etymology is not simply an extension of your own family tree, well, that is disturbing. And counterintuitive to the writer, who of course is a narcissist at heart. Narcissist: self-centeredness arising from failure to distinguish the self from external objects, or, perhaps, an inability to separate one’s life from the words used to describe it.