As you may have suspected recently, I spent an hour or so grazing on The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style. I do this a lot. It’s what passes for fun in my life. It’s great to learn new things. But the big thing I learned was that, contrary to what I thought, I do not pronounce the word “banal” in the most common way.
In addition to learning this, I found out that there are four ways — Four ways! — that people do or have recently pronounced this word. This may seem weird to you, but I have been in a few conversations with people who were angry about my pronunciation. This is, of course, the same old same old, “My grammar school teacher taught me this and so I know it’s right!” Note: they never admit this, but I know rules-based thinking when I see it. As Fowler said of the split infinitive, “They see no reason why they should not [split an infinitive] (small blame to them, seeing that reasons are not their critics’ strong point)…”
I am not here to tell you how you should pronounce “banal.” I am here simply to share the wondrousness that we English speakers would come up with four ways to pronounce a very simple, two-syllable, word. It never occurred to me. I always thought there were just two. I hope you are as excited as I am to get started.
Fowler on “Banal”
Back in 1926, H W Fowler had a very dim view of this word and the noun version, banality:
Ouch! But times change. When Ernest Gowers updated Modern English Usage in 1965, he was much more kind to it. Originally, Fowler didn’t even provide an pronunciation. So when American Heritage claims, “Sixty years ago, H W Fowler recommended the pronunciation (ban’-el), rhyming with panel…” it was wrong. It was Gowers who recommended that, as far as I can tell. But I think they are right that no one pronounces it that way today. Certainly, no one of their usage panel did.
The Most Common Banal
A full 58 percent of the people on the usage page chose the pronunciation (bə-‘nal), which rhymes with canal. Can this be true? I don’t ever recall hearing anyone pronounce the word in this way. It is possible that the writers on the usage panel are not that familiar with the details of pronunciation lingo. I know that I always have to look up what the symbols mean on those rare occasions that I really want to know how a word is pronounced.
Then again, I’m a left coast guy. I’ve spent my whole life living at various spots between San Francisco and Seattle. And maybe my ignorance of this pronunciation is a function of that. But I doubt that. David Foster Wallace pronounced the word as I do, and he was raised in Illinois. Note: this can’t be a British thing, because American Heritage deals only with American English.
The Annoying One
When people argue with me over the pronunciation, they like (bā’-nəl), which rhymes with anal. A full 28 percent of the usage panel prefers this pronunciation. That was, of course, over a decade ago, and by my experience, it has been losing ground. I’m sure part of that is due to the fact that it does sound like anal. But more important to me is that the hard-a just doesn’t seem banal to me.
Regardless, I’ve never commented on someone pronouncing banal this way. It’s always the other way around. I say it the “wrong” way and am instructed about the right way to say it, which they know because
Moses Mrs Johnston told them in the fourth grade.
Now we come to the way that I pronounce banal: bə-‘näl, which doesn’t really rhyme with any word, but sounds kind of like the end of Senegal. It is without a doubt the most common way that I hear people pronounce it. Yet only 13 percent of the usage panel prefers it.
It could be that I think this pronunciation of banal is most common because it is mine, and I’m not that accurate at hearing language. So the most common one sounds to me like mine. But the truth is, it doesn’t matter.
Any Way to Banal
What’s fascinating about this word is that no one can decide. So everything is okay. And I’ve only mentioned the four major contenders. There are a couple of other minor variations. So say it how ever you want.
But Fowler did make a good point almost a century ago: do we really need this word when we have common, commonplace, trite, trivial, mean, vulgar, truism, platitude, and so many more? Maybe. I’m not sure that there is any other word that is quite the same. “Trite” is probably closest, but it doesn’t quite capture of the emotional “meh” that “banal” provides.