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Thursday, February 25, 2016

Caret and stick

I recently saw an online discussion about the pronunciation of the word "caret". You may not be familiar with this word. It's what someone in the discussion called "the little hat thingie" that editors use to insert something missing into a text. You can see it above in the logo of Editors Canada.

Overwhelmingly, the respondents said it was pronounced pretty much the same as "carrot" (or also "carat" or "karat"). 

But there was a small bastion of Canadians who said "KaRAY".

It's perhaps not surprising that this pronunciation has cropped up. First of all, it's just not a word one hears spoken out loud a lot. Even editors and proofreaders probably don't get together and have lively viva voce conversations about them. "I just love what you've done with your carets!" "Wow, did you see how well she placed that caret?" 

For that matter, it's not a word that most people know. These Canadians, some of whom who had gone to French immersion schools, were imposing a French pronunciation on "caret". Ballet. Bouquet. Buffet. Ricochet. Cachet. Sachet. See? Perfectly logical.

Canadians are notorious for despising anglicized pronunciations of French words. 
FOY urr rather than FOY ay for "foyer"?
OggROTTinn instead of oh grat TAN for "au gratin"? 
Enn ROUT instead of ahn ROOT for "en route"?
Profoundly shocking.

But unfortunately, "caret" is not a French word. It's Latin. In Latin caret means "there (something) is lacking" from carēre (to be in want of). It has been used in English since the 1700s.

The French word for this symbol is apparently un lambda, after the Greek letter that looks like this: λ.

So I have to recommend that this "kaRAY" pronunciation be abandoned, lest people think you are doing a Hyacinth Bucket.

And just be thankful you don't have to call it by its saliva-inducing German name: Einschaltungszeichen

There is at least one example in English of a word whose pronunciation was changed under a misapprehension about its origin: forte. Not the musical direction, which comes from Italian, but the word meaning "a strong point". This came from French fort and was originally pronounced FORT in English. But it was confused with the Italian forte so we ended up spelling it and pronouncing it the same way. One of my correspondents at the Canadian Oxford Dictionary was irate about this "new" pronunciation. It has in fact been with us since the 19th century. But I don't think a small group of Canadians will have a similar impact on the pronunciation of "caret".

Our more common carrot comes ultimately from a Greek word meaning "head" (via Latin and French).

Carat, a measure of weight used for diamonds and other precious stones, and karat, a proportional measure of one twenty-fourth used in stating the fineness of gold, both come ultimately from Arabic qīrāṭ (and qirrāṭ) ‘weight of 4 grains’.


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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.