It has come to my attention that no one currently alive in the United States of America, and precious few even in England, can correctly pronounce the word “forehead” any more.
Now I feel I have the non-curmudgeonality-cred to speak freely on this touchy subject as I was one of the very few intellectuals of a certain age who didn’t get all up in arms about the usurpation of the word “gay” by the, for want of a better word, gay community; my acceptance of this was based almost entirely on the grounds that the change added piquancy to that old joke about the writer and producer of the Beggar’s Opera , not that that detracts in any way from that acceptance---and since I’ve now got you wondering what this joke is and since it is such an old joke, and obviously in need of an historically informed performance, let me give you a thorough enough disquisition for you to understand it, while at the same time preventing you from finding it in any way funny. You see on the 29th of January 1728 at the Lincoln’s-Inn-Fields Theatre in London began the most successful theatrical run of the whole Eighteenth Century: everyone loved the Beggar’s Opera (apart of course from prime minister Walpole who for some reason felt slighted by certain references in it and indeed had its sequel ‘Polly’ banned in revenge) and so, in spite of Walpole, it ran and ran for 61 performances. Now the B.O. was written by John Gay and was eventually (and somewhat reluctantly1) produced by John Rich and so after its surprising runaway success it was jokingly said (or at least reported as a ludicrous saying) by none less than the great Dr Johnson that “It made Gay rich and Rich gay” a phrase which must have sounded a lot less racy then than now. And, as an intellectual of a certain age, I for one can enjoy the fact that I can get more enjoyment2 from it than either those who then knew only the original context or those who now know only the revised one.
Oh! Yes. Anyway... Forehead!
For me things really came to a head for the word formerly pronounced as [ˈfɒɹɪd] ("forid") when I heard the pronunciation [ˈfɔɹ hɛd] ("foer hed") used by that English actor of a certain age Anthony Head while playing the part of the character Giles (an English intellectual of a certain age) in television’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I realised then and there that the final wall had been breached and that, just as in 1453, yet another Constantinople was about to fall to the detriment of civilisation. And while we of the verloren hoop were desperately fighting our forlorn retreat, knowing defeat to be a foregone conclusion; the vulgar American populace was busy doing its own thing as usual.
Take this little experiment with a typical member of the vulgar American populace:
Me (for it is he): Rowie say [ˈfɒɹɪd] Anyway: the mechanics of the end of civilisation as we would like to know it are relatively simple, you see the now common pronunciation [ˈfɔɹ hɛd] is what is called in the trade a ‘spelling pronunciation’ (which by the bye should never be confused with its opposite number the ‘pronunciation spelling’). You see spoken language and written language are really two quite distinct and not necessarily parallel things3. They are disparate, but since we made that desperate mistake of teaching almost everyone to read and then compounded it by not stressing to them that difference to save the poor buggers from embarrassment, our only hope lies in the spread of television (which in time should cure the problem of universal quasi-literacy right up) but in the meantime to get right to the nitty gritty. What horrid and evil thing is this new pronunciation going to do to to that delightful little old verse4:
Rowie: [ˈfɔɹ hɛd]
There was a little girl,Cheerio for now
And she had a little curl
Right in the middle of her fore-head.
When she was good,
she was very, very good,
But when she was bad she was HORE-HEAD?!!!
from Richard Howland-Bolton
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1 After it had been distainfully rejected by Colley Cibber and the Drury-Lane theatre
2 And that’s without even calling it the ‘Bugger’s Opera’ in a brilliantly obscure reference to Sir John Betjeman’s Ghastly Good Taste.
3 Compare written Chinese with, on the one hand spoken Chinese, and on the other written Japanese of the Kanji persuasion; or again compare all those foolish jokes and 'pomes' one sees, often circulating on the internet and perpetrated by the illiterate or at least the etymologically challenged, that claim that English spelling is illogical.
4 By Longfellow, or possibly Tallchap.
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