Dissecting English pronunciation

Whenever I hear someone pronouncing the word ‘dissect’ to sound like ‘die-sect’, I remember Mr Ellis. He was my first biology teacher. He had crinkly grey hair, small round spectacles and a fastidious manner. As he demonstrated the use of a scalpel for the first time, he said:

“Now remember, boys, I am about to dis-sect this earthworm. Not die-sect. There are two esses, because the prefix is ‘dis’, added to the Latin root ‘sect’ and the word means ‘to cut apart’. On the other hand, you bisect an angle (pronouncing it ‘buy’) because the prefix is ‘bi’, meaning two – as in bicycle – and therefore the word means ‘to cut in two’. And there is only one ‘s’. So: never let me hear a boy talking of ‘die-secting’. Understood?”

Though there is much that Mr Ellis taught me that I have long since forgotten, that lesson stuck. My school,as it happens, has a medical foundation and has turned out many doctors over the years (I nearly became one myself). Yet I constantly hear intelligent people, including eminent surgeons, pronouncing the word ‘die-sect’. Perhaps they never had the advantage of studying under Mr Ellis. But I bet they wouldn’t say ‘die-sappear’ or ‘die-satisfied’.

My Ellis, incidentally, could be bitingly sarcastic. On our first lesson with a microscope, we studied samples of pond-water. I was excited when I found what I was sure was a one-celled organism. I stared down the eyepiece at it, and was convinced I saw it move.

Mr Ellis loomed up behind me. “What are you looking at, boy?” he said.

“I’m pretty sure it’s an amoeba, sir,” I replied.

Mr Ellis peered into the microscope, then straightened and addressed the whole class. “First rule of microscopy: make sure you know what you are looking at!” he said. “This boy has just spent twenty minutes contemplating an inanimate piece of sludge.”

Sixty years on, I still squirm . . .

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