Two syllables or three? Athletes and veterans

Have you ever noticed that people who cannot pronounce “athlete” typically cannot pronounce “veteran”? This seems especially true of anyone in the media, more so when the speaker is a sports broadcaster.

Yes, yes, I am an oversensitive soul when it comes to words, but you have to admit, when you listen to someone who is supposed to be a professional mispronounce words that are basic to h/her field, you hear “Idiot!” echo in your head. I know you do. I can’t be the only one with that particular soundtrack blaring between the ears.

The words I want to hear are “ath’-lete” and “vet’-er’-an.” Instead, I hear, “ath’-uh-lete” and “veh’-trun.”

Oh, god. Kill me now. I just cannot take it anymore.

In some small way, I can almost forgive sports broadcasters, the color announcers anyway, their mispronunciation of “athlete,” because many of those talking heads are former athletes with little to no actual broadcasting or journalism backgrounds, and I’m certain few – if any – ever majored in English. The pros, however, have no excuse, and as professionals, it is their responsibility to immediately correct their less studied co-hosts, post-broadcast or on a break, so everyone is correct. It is a matter of professionalism and professional courtesy. When I started in radio back in 1982 at 1390 WGWY – AM, it was my responsibility to not only get my stories correct, but also to ensure I communicated correctly. Even back then, we knew that our communication styles were not only a reflection on ourselves and our stations, but also our communities. It was, and still is, a broadcaster’s/journalist’s responsibility to use correct English, grammar, form. People, we knew and we know, repeat and reflect what they hear and see, and we are supposed to set an example for our communities. If we don’t know how to pronounce something, we are supposed to snag a pronunciation guide, a.k.a. Oxford American English Dictionary and Thesaurus, and find what we need. When we didn’t follow through, we heard about it from our station manager. It’s not that we ever had to sound snooty or formal, that was never the point. It’s that we were to issue our reports in the best form. Mispronunciations, especially those done for the sake of sounding “cool,” took all of us down a notch, and that’s a great way to lose listeners or at least create some haters.

Now, for the “V” word, my bone of contention, I must admit, extends only to those who are younger than the average World War II vet. I’ve had the privilege to listen to some of those people share their stories. The men I heard rarely had complete educations, so I could hardly begrudge them how they spoke. It’s the people who I know are educated, and again, especially my colleagues in the media, who not only mispronounce “veteran” as “veh-trun,” but they do so for effect, that earn my ire. Their pronunciation is an affectation used to make the speaker sound as though s/he is “one of the people.” As written, that might not seem to be such a bad thing, but when you realize that being “one of the people” means the reporter is trying to get down to the people’s level and be “one of them,” you understand that the mispronunciation is an actual insult to the audience. Think about that the next time you hear your favorite broadcaster say “veh-trun.”



2 thoughts on “Two syllables or three? Athletes and veterans

  1. Diane: Loved your comments about the mispronunciation of the “V word”, veteran. A while ago I sent an email to CNN’s Anderson Cooper suggesting that CNN can afford to purchase some vowels for him, notably the letter E so he can correctly pronounce vetEran. Never received a reply.


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