I’m sure you’ve noticed: the word “niche”, which used to be pronounced “nitch”, is now universally pronounced “neesh”, as though we have to be impressed by the speaker’s knowledge of French. The usage appears to have come from business-speak – “niche markets” etc. I had assumed an American origin; but in America recently I have heard various people in different contexts say “nitch”, so must absolve them of this quasi-solecism (and indeed a knowledge of French is never something that can be assumed in the U.S.).
And though the Bishop blessed the switches
Which now deface two ancient niches,
We do not like the electric light,
It’s far too hard and bare and bright.
John Betjeman – who should know.
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There was a young lady of Chichester
Whose charms made the saints in their niches stir.
Each Sunday at Matins
Her breasts in white satins
Made the Bishop of Chichester’s breeches stir.
That clinches it, I feel. But the word “breeches” needs a note in itself.
“Breeches” was always pronounced “britches” (this is necessary for the humour of the limerick); no longer: the spelling now dictates the pronunciation. Compare “waistcoat” formerly pronounced “weskit” – which I concede now sounds affected. These changes are a normal result of increased literacy, and comparable ones have occurred often in the past (cf. “almost”, “almighty”, “fault” and all the words which, until people could read, were pronounced with the “l” silent as in “talk”, “walk” etc.).
Another example of this sort of change in Britain is “forehead”, now always two distinct syllables, with the “h” pronounced. Until very recently it was “forrid”, as in the rhyme my generation (and many earlier ones) were brought up on:
There was a little girl
And she had a little curl
Right in the middle of her forehead.
When she was good
She was very, very good,
But when she was bad she was horrid.
Although often thought to be an ancient nursery rhyme this is in fact the first stanza of a poem by Longfellow, a nineteenth-century American, course. American or not, he evidently pronounced the word as I have always done. Thomas Pyles, in Words and Ways of American English, 1952, suggests that Americans tended to pronounce words carefully, observing all the syllables, because they often came to English as a second language, and needed to be sure they had got it right. But it was Noah Webster who laid it down that American schools should systematically teach pronunciation syllabically, partly at least in protest at the carelessness of British pronunciation, which embodied the general laxity of the Old Country in matters moral and practical. Hence “lab-ora-tor-y” when standard British English would slur the word as “lab-or-at’ry”.
It is smart to use the indefinite article “an” in front of words beginning with an unstressed syllable starting with “h”. This is not new; but in an egalitarian and linguistically slack age, why stick with a usage that now sounds prissy? Perversely, the one surviving legitimate context for it, “an hotel” (“h” silent), is rarely heard and sounds old-fashioned. Americans still leave the “h” silent in “herb”, “homage” and a few other words of French origin – and the US pronunciation of “homage” as ‘om-mahj has become common over here within the last two decades.
Very smart, too, nowadays is the archaic and strictly Scottish legalism “proven”, which is now universally substituted for “proved” – so universally that it no longer seems smart at all. Thus, toothpaste tubes advertise their contents as “scientifically proven to eliminate germs”. This is absurd – but it is now standard usage:
“The ‘merger of equals’ has proven to be an entirely uneven arrangement…” Ben Marlow in D. Telegraph, 18 March 2020.
Woody Allen, in a New Yorker piece written in the early 1970s, used “proved” in the traditional way. I do not think he would do so now. “Proven” has occasionally been used in poetry as a more elegant alternative to “proved”: cf Siegfried Sassoon’s poem Proven Purpose (1964).
But we now have “disproven”, if you please. Headline in the Art Newspaper, March 2007: “Disproven: Thyssen claims to be innocent of Nazi crimes”. This illustrates perfectly what happens when an essentially alien form is adopted to look smart, but for reasons most people don’t understand. It is misapplied in contexts where it becomes ridiculous, and no-one notices.