McCallum: Missing The 'R'

Feb 28, 2019

Because I’m a writer and a former librarian, a friend once gave me a refrigerator magnet that says in bold print, I Am Silently Judging Your Grammar. But I believe that language is a living thing with the power to connect us all through meaning and understanding. And in today’s world, that’s no small thing.

But here we are on the last day of the shortest month and while most sun starved Vermonters have been thinking about sugaring, extended daylight - and maybe the definition of Leap Year - I’ve been missing something.

And that something is a missing R.

Dropping an R isn’t anything new to Vermonters. Newcomers are usually surprised to learn that the name of one Vermont town - spelled like the southern city or a woman’s name - is not pronounced ‘SHAR-lut’ with a prominent R - but rather, you know someone’s been here a while when they refer to the little town tucked between route 7 and the shore of Lake Champlain as Sha-LOT.

Still, when I hear the name of our second month pronounced Feb-YOO-ary instead of Feb-RU-ary I wince. Enunciating both Rs was drilled into me in school and, like my times tables, it’s never left. But it’s been trimmed to reflect common usage and make it easier to pronounce. And the practice is nearly universal.

I’d assumed it was just a sign of linguistic laziness. But lately I’ve learned we’ve been doing this for more than 150 years. Apparently our tongues don’t like having multiple Rs close together in one word, so we drop one and get on with the message.

And in everyday conversation it also happens with other common words like surprise, particular and berserk, where the first Rs are dropped left and right.

So now when I hear Feb-YOO-ary uttered without that first R - I’ll simply remind myself that it’s the last month of meteorological winter in Vermont, and celebrate its brevity.

And perhaps re-gift that refrigerator magnet.

How we speak is one marker of who we are - as Vermonters and as the larger culture beyond our borders - but, like our politics - it’s ever shifting.

Even so, I'm a former librarian - and the word liberry still drives me berserk - with an R.