Exploring the pathways of our lexicon
Getting Acclimated to "Acclamation"
Yesterday's Visual Thesaurus Word of the Day was acclamation, a timely word now that the Democratic National Convention has begun. Of course, the news out of Denver is that Barack Obama will not be nominated by acclamation ("a voting method in which shouts or applause, rather than ballots, determine the winner"). Instead, there will be a state-by-state roll call for the nomination on Wednesday night, with some votes going to Obama's erstwhile rival Hillary Clinton, followed by some sort of a unanimous consent for Obama after the first ballot. Columnists Dick Morris and Eileen McGann wrote last week that Obama should have "blocked a roll call by allowing a voice vote to nominate by acclimation." Whoops!
Morris and McGann aren't the only ones to make an accidental replacement of acclamation with its soundalike acclimation. The same error found its way into recent campaign articles from WiredPRNews and The Dallas Morning News. And of course it appears in countless unedited posts across the blogosphere, where enthusiasm frequently trumps proper spelling. Maybe it's a kind of Freudian slip, with the idea being that the Democratic delegates still need to get acclimated to Obama in order to nominate him!
Politics aside, acclamation and acclimation are two frequently confused words for obvious reasons. They differ by one letter, and that letter represents an unstressed vowel sound known as the "schwa," the spelling of which is often difficult to predict. As the Wikipedia article on "schwa" points out, the sound can be represented by any of the six letters used typically used in English for vowels:
- like the <a> in about
- like the <e> in taken
- like the <i> in pencil
- like the <o> in eloquent
- like the <u> in supply
- like the <y> in sibyl
Some speakers might pronounce the i in acclimation with the "short i" sound of big if they're saying the word very slowly and carefully, but in normal speech that vowel will sound pretty close to a schwa. Delving a bit into the linguistic nitty-gritty, in an unstressed syllable the big vowel is often reduced to what phoneticians call a "barred-i", which is a "high" vowel. That means your tongue is a bit closer to the roof of your mouth than when you're pronouncing a "central" schwa. But not all English speakers distinguish between the barred-i and the schwa. Here's a test to see if you have the distinction: do the words roses and Rosa's sound different? (See this page for more phonetic details.)
No doubt about it, the schwa can be downright tricky. Just look at how the spelling of the first vowel changed in the words discussed in this Word Routes column: skedaddle, scadoodle, skidoo. With so much variability, it's no wonder that acclamation and acclimation can get mixed up occasionally — especially when a spellchecker is no help in ferreting out the "wrong" spelling.
In our next Word Routes we'll look at some more commonly confused words. Look for it immanently, uh, imminently.