There were certainly a lot of weird words on page 21 of The New York Times Everyday Reader’s Dictionary of Misunderstood, Misused, and Mispronounced Words: Revised Edition! It’s not surprising that I didn’t know “balneal” and “balneology” since they have to do with bathing. But it is surprising that I didn’t know “bandog,” given my interest in people breading dogs to be vicious. But instead, I picked the word “baldachin.”
Baldachin Is Not Banal
On page 21 there was a word most literate people know well: banal. A question that has been much debated during my life is how this word should be pronounced. The fact that such a debate should stand out in my life certainly says much about the kind of life I’ve led. But up until I was in college, it never occurred to me that anyone would pronounce it other than “bənäl.” But no. There were lots of people who pronounced it “bānəl.”
What’s interesting is that with a hard-a, the word sounds rather aggressive. And the people who preferred it were quite aggressive on the matter. The people who preferred the more laid-back pronunciation tended to be more laid-back in general. “Banal” still strikes me as a laid-back word. If one wished to be aggressive, one would just exclaim, “Boring!” And that would be that.
The Dying Hard-A of Banal
Apparently, the whole hard-a “banal” is an American thing. Oxford doesn’t even mention that pronunciation in its definition of banal. But even Merriam-Webster lists this pronunciation third — with “loser” in parentheses after it. (I’m just kidding about the “loser” part.) My bet is that this pronunciation is falling out of favor because it just sounds silly.
Anyway, enough of that. On to “baldachin.”
1. a silk fabric embroidered with gold or silver threads.
2. a canopy carried over an important person or sacred object.
3. a canopy over an altar
Date: late 16th century.
Origin: from the Italian word baldacchino, which means canopy.
Example: They can well have resulted from the application of cloth of the baldachin to the surface of the panel before the paint had dried entirely, and from the consequent absorption of some of the paint by the cloth. —Carl Hermann Kraeling