Up in Bayfield this week, the green was going thin on the leaves and there were patches of blaze. It is tempting to continue in this vein and compose a paean to autumn, but I’ve likely overplayed that tune, you know how it goes, and also paean is a tricky word, as I found out earlier this year when I included it in an essay, which I read aloud for the very first time in front of a conference room filled with librarians, a notoriously well-read bunch.
As I assume most of you do when reading aloud, my eyes were scanning four or five words ahead of my mouth. I was probably half a second out from paean when I spotted it lying in wait and realized I knew how to spell it, I knew what it meant, but I had no idea how to pronounce it. Time slowed down in my head as I ran through all the possibilities. As it turns out, you can pop up a pretty good head sweat in half a second. In the end, I marble-mouthed it, in the hopes the audience might assume the microphone wasn’t up to snuff. I guess you could call it a glossal gloss-over.
Paean is a lovely word by definition (song of praise or triumph) as well as on the page. I’m a sucker for words in which vowels nestle adjacent. Aesthetic, for example, which I prefer over esthetic (which, in the end, is what (a)esthetics is all about). You put an a next to an e, they look round and gentle and friendly. Pleasant to observe.
But sometimes a little harder to pronounce.
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After my talk I had other duties, so it wasn’t until I got back in the van for the drive home that I had time to look up the pronunciation on my phone. As it turned out, as well as paean works on the page, it really isn’t suited for reading aloud, as it is pronounced “pēən” which sounds a lot like something you shouldn’t be doing in public and isn’t all that aesthetic no matter how you spell it. Turns out marble-mouthing was the right move.
In the interest of personal character and full disclosure and in spite of what I thought at the time, in the course of looking up the pronunciation, I discovered I actually didn’t know how to spell paean. I had been going with paen. This triggered another crop of head-sweat and a quick call to the editor of a certain national online publication where the essay was already live and garnering hundreds of hits. Thankfully, it appears no one else knew how to spell it either, and we got it fixed before any of your topflight spellers blasted the comments section.
So your correctly spelled paean contains a triple-vowel-nestle. This is soothing to look upon, even this morning as the temperatures hit the low 50s, upshot being today I will forgo autumnal songs of praise and triumph and instead compose another stack of firewood.