Grammar Moses: A column cut from whole fustian

Updated 5/9/2021 11:28 AM

I love to learn new words. Or, as is often the case, relearn words I'd looked up before and forgotten. I swear my vocabulary stopped growing organically about 35 years ago. Adding to it is a constant struggle.

I check out e-books from my library, and if I'm tripped up by a word I don't know (or can't remember), I touch the screen and up pops a definition.


I do miss curling up with a good book, but curling up with an iPad is less cumbersome than curling up with a book AND a dictionary, especially when I'm traveling.

I learned a new word just before I started writing this.

Merriam-Webster's word of the day was "fustian."

No, not "Faustian," which we all know to be an adjectival form of "Faust," Goethe's protagonist who made a deal with the devil.

"Fustian" is a type of coarse cotton cloth used in menswear. It also is used to refer to bloated, pretentious speech or writing, which is perhaps why I feel a kinship with it.

It also provides a nice segue into the topic of the day: words that don't sound the way they look.

The "tian" in "Faustian" (tee-un) sounds completely different from the "tian" in "fustian" (chun).

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Seg-yoo, you say? My segue contained the word "segue," which is pronounced like the mall cop's best friend (SEG-way).

Last week I asked you for your favorite words that sound different from how they look on paper. Your assignment was vague, yet some of you gave it a lot of thought.

• Reader Mary Kay Arndt had a little fun over breakfast with the ever-elastic "ough" and wrote a short story that was chock-full of homonyms. I provide just a sampling here in the interest of keeping this column on track:

"It was tough to cut through the bough thoroughly, and it landed roughly near the trough. I wound up the job with only one wound, and a little coughing from the dust."

• Bob Koop started similarly.

"I stooped low on the bough and pointed my bow as the beau took a bow at the window," he wrote.

Was it a bow window, Bob?


• "My mother's favorite was 'ghoti,' wrote reader Bill Murray.

That's "gh" as in "enough," "o" as in "women," and "ti" as in "nation," he explained.

So, "ghoti" is pronounced "fish."

• "When I was a nerdy high-schooler (before I was a nerdy adult) I did have a few 'cool' friends who helped me from being hopelessly out of touch," wrote Gerry McGovern. "I was telling a story to one of those friends and used the word 'lingerie.' Of course, I pronounced it LIN-GRR-eee. Mike calmly and quietly interrupted me and simply said, 'Ger, that's lan-zhur-AY.'"

• Emily from Elk Grove Village (who doesn't like to use her last name) provided me a list of words: salmon, epitome, duly, quenelle, Gila monster, mistletoe, gherkin, xylophone and queue.

Mea culpa

Last week I stated "feted" and "fetid" are pronounced the same.

Patricia Waszkiewicz disagreed. "Feted," she said, is pronounced the same as "fated." So they're pronounced similarly, but not exactly the same, she concluded.

It's been my experience that "fete" is pronounced with a short "e" rather than a long "a" sound. And that experience has been both from the Midwest and France, where it seems to be pronounced somewhere in between.

Dictionaries I use include both pronunciations or one or the other.

But if I'm going to throw around words like "exactly," I should exercise more precision.

Write carefully!

• Jim Baumann is vice president/managing editor of the Daily Herald. Write him at Put Grammar Moses in the subject line. You also can friend or follow Jim at

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