It’s fair to say the English language can be a bit of a minefield at times. What else can you say about a language in which enough, cough, dough, bough, and through don’t rhyme with one another, or in which the plural of goose and mongoose are geese and mongooses? Come to grips with all those inconsistencies and you’ll still have to contend with the fact that English has a troublesome spelling system that permits a word like zoo, with its straightforward double-O spelling, to rhyme with hew, blue, to, you, lieu, coup, flu, two, through, queue, hoopoe, and bijoux. And add to that the fact that English also has probably the largest vocabulary of any comparable language on the planet, and the problems soon begin to stack up.
With all that in mind then, try reading this:
Penelope Cholmondely raised her azure eyes from the crabbed scenario. She meandered among the congeries of her memoirs. There was the Kinetic Algernon, a choleric artificer of icons and triptychs, who wanted to write a trilogy. For years she had stifled her risibilities with dour moods. His asthma caused him to sough like the zephyrs among the tamarack.
That is an announcer’s test—an intentionally challenging piece of prose once used to audition prospective radio announcers. This particular test is one of the oldest on record: According to I Looked And I Listened, the 1954 memoir of former New York Daily News radio columnist Ben Gross, this was in use back in the early days of American commercial radio in the mid-1920s, and was passed on to him by renowned New York radio announcer Phillips Carlin. It’s unclear precisely how the test would have been carried out, but given how later tests were organized, it’s likely that auditionees would have been given it cold, with little or no time to prepare beforehand.
So would you have passed it? Did any of those words trip you up? (If you found it easy, the 1951 NBC Handbook of Pronunciation has a much longer version for aspiring radio announcers to try at home.) Here’s what the dictionaries have to say about some of the trickiest parts of that passage:
Cholmondely (n.): Despite appearances, the surname Cholmondely/Cholmondeley is pronounced “Chumley,” according to the Cambridge English Pronouncing Dictionary.
Azure (n., adj.): Cambridge also lists no less than eight different pronunciations of azure, depending on whether the first or second syllable is stressed; whether the A is pronounced long (as in “bay”) or short (as in “bat”); and whether the Z is pronounced like the Z in zoo or like this “zh” sound in leisure or treasure. But if you’re looking for a job at NBC in the 1950s, they want it pronounced "AZH er."
Crabbed (adj.): Meaning “difficult” or “bad-tempered”; if you’re using it as an adjective, crabbed should rhyme with rabid, not jabbed.
Congeries (n.): In American English, congeries is pronounced with stress on the initial syllable, “CON-juh-reez,” whereas British English (and, oddly enough, NBC) prefers it on the second syllable, “con-JEER-eez.” Either way, if you’re not familiar with it, it might come as a surprise to find that congeries is a singular noun meaning “a disorderly collection” or “a heap.”
Algernon (n.): The boy’s name Algernon is stressed on the first syllable, but what you do after that is debatable: According to most English dictionaries, both “AL-jer-nun” and “AL-jer-non,” with a longer final syllable, are acceptable.
Choleric (adj.): Meaning “easily angered” or “bad-tempered,” choleric is stressed on the first syllable, “COL-uh-rick.”
Artificer (n.): An artificer is a skilled craftsman or mechanic. Although based around artifice, which is stressed on the initial syllable, artificer is usually stressed on the first I, “ar-TI-fi-ser.”
Triptychs (pl. n.): Ignore the H in that weird –tych ending, because triptych—namely a three-paneled artwork—rhymes with cryptic.
Risibilities (pl. n.): Risibility is laughter or laughableness, but in this case the word is often used in the plural to mean “an inclination to laugh.” It rhymes with visibilities.
Dour (adj.): In its native Scots dialect, dour is pronounced with a long “oo” sound, like that in wooer or bluer (this is NBC's preference), but most English dictionaries suggest that it should be pronounced like power or sour.
Sough (v.): Not even the dictionaries can agree on this one. Sough, a verb meaning “to moan or whistle like the wind through the trees,” can be pronounced either “suff” (NBC's preference) or “sow” (rhyming with cow).
Tamarack (n.): Another name for the eastern larch, and frequently used to mean several different larches, tamarack essentially rhymes with anorak, and is pronounced “TAM-uh-rack.”
Proving that there are really no right or wrong answers here—and that the prescriptivist rules of pronunciation that would have been so important in the 1920s have relaxed—it’s worth pointing out how many of these have two or more recommended pronunciations, or else are given different readings in different dictionaries.
Later announcers’ tests went even further. Prospective new talent at NBC in the 1930s, for instance, were reportedly tested with a list of foreign names, place names, and tongue-twisters, like “the seething sea ceased to see, then thus sufficeth thus.” And in the 1940s, announcers at Radio Central New York were given a list of 10 ever-lengthening and ever more complicated numbered sentences, which they were required not only to recite in a repeating sequence (1, 1-2, 1-2-3, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4-5 …) but from memory, and in one single, expertly controlled breath at a time:
One hen Two ducks Three squawking geese Four limerick oysters Five corpulent porpoises Six pair of Don Alverzo’s tweezers Seven thousand Macedonians, in full battle array Eight brass monkeys from the ancient, sacred, crypts of Egypt Nine apathetic, sympathetic, diabetic, old men on roller skates, with a marked propensity towards procrastination and sloth Ten lyrical, spherical, diabolical denizens of the deep who hall stall around the corner on the quo of the quay of the quivvey, all at the same time.
Penelope Cholmondely and her memoirs suddenly don’t seem quite so difficult …