Wood on Words: Accent marks change everything
In the 1940 film “The Bank Dick,” W.C. Fields’ character, Egbert Sousé, explains that his name is pronounced “soo-ZAY, accent grave over the ‘e.’” Otherwise, of course, it would have to rhyme with “house,” and “souse” is slang for “a drunkard.”
It’s another example of Fields poking fun at himself and his well-known fondness for alcohol. By the way, it’s actually an “accent aigu” (ay-GYOO, approximately) (acute accent) over the “e,” but “accent grave” (sort of rhymes with “suave”) apparently sounded better.
Traditionally, newspapers have mostly ignored accent marks (also called diacritical marks) because of typographical limitations, but most modern computer and printing systems can handle them now. So it’s probably time for us to catch up on them.
In the case of the French “accent aigu,” it signals that the “e” is stressed and gets a “long a” sound. It also can sometimes clear things up in English.
For example, we all know that “a rose is a rose.” But if we add an acute accent, “rose” is not a “rose” but a “rosé.”
Similarly, “cafe” looks as if it ought to rhyme with “strafe,” but it’s actually pronounced “ka-FAY.” We’ve become accustomed to seeing this one without the accent mark, but some cafés use it.
The acute accent can be especially helpful in two cases:
The verb “resume,” meaning to reoccupy, restart and the like, is converted into the noun “résumé,” a summary, particularly of a job candidate’s qualifications. (Notice that “résumé” needs two accent marks, although “resumé” also is considered acceptable.)
The verb “expose” — “to leave unprotected”; “disclose, reveal, exhibit, display”; “to make known, unmask” — is transformed into the noun “exposé.” The latter is a particular kind of exposing: “a public disclosure of a scandal, crime, etc.”
An “exposé” often involves the use of photography, which uses another type of “exposure.”
And exposure also can lead to dehydration, frostbite, even death.
The noun “exposition” is related to “expose” and “expound” — yes, we’re back to that wacky “pose” family again.
“Exposition” can be various forms of expression or “an exhibition, especially a large public exhibition or show, often international in scope.”
In this country, we like to abbreviate it to “expo.”
It’s advisable to refer to a participant in an exhibition as an “exhibitor” rather than an “exhibitionist.” The latter term brings to mind the psychological application: a person with “a tendency to expose parts of the body that are conventionally concealed,” as Webster’s so delicately phrases it.
By the way, the root of “expound,” meaning “to state in detail” or “clarify,” is also the basis for “exponent.” From its use in mathematics, we get the term “exponential,” a good one to roll out to emphasize that something is “increasing by extraordinary proportions.”
Two other “pose” words, which aren’t used all that often, are “interpose” — “to place or put between” — and “juxtapose” — “to put side by side or close together.”
And finally, there’s “decompose,” with which everything breaks down. That word recalls “disposal” and “compost,” which is where this all began three columns ago.
I propose we leave it at that.