Bring the calvary

« previous post | next post »

David Donnell's friend from Urbana drew his attention to the trailer for Furious 7, where Dwayne Johnson pronounces cavalry as ['kæl.və.ɹi]:

Michelle Rodriguez: Hey, did ya bring the cavalry?
Dwayne Johnson: Woman, I AM the calvary.

David comments:

Now, before I actually viewed the trailer, I argued that such ‘phoneme inversions’ [please correct that terminology] are fairly common in our language—eg, ‘aks’, ’nucular’, ‘perduction’; it ain’t a big deal, doesn’t bug me, doesn’t mean someone is dumb, etc, etc. But then I viewed the trailer and, gosh darn it, Johnson does sound dumb!

We should consider the hypothesis that Dwayne Johnson is indulging in a little mid-action word-play, as in one of the examples of "generic" usage in the OED's entry glossed "The proper name of the place where Christ was crucified. (Rendered in Old English Headpan-stow.) Also used generically":

1878   ‘G. Eliot’ College Breakfast Party in Macmillan's Mag. July 167   A Calvary where Reason mocks at Love.

But it's more likely that he's just one of the many English speakers whose mental lexicon shifts the /l/ from the second syllable to the first, thereby putting syllable-weight and stress in better correspondence. In fact, this pronunciation is so common that it's listed in the Merriam-Webster entry:

And it's easy to find online discussions attributing the pronunciation to museum guides, TV show hosts, and so forth. I say ['kæ.vəl.ɹi] myself, but ['kæl.və.ɹi] doesn't sound dumb to me.  If ['kæl.və.ɹi] was my preferred pronunciation, I'd be no more inclined to change than I am to change the way I say February (eliding the first /r/).

Anyhow, having once watched three of the previous Fast and Furious franchise movies during a long flight back from Asia, I'm looking forward to the release of Furious 7.



  1. froder said,

    March 27, 2015 @ 7:36 am

    I believe there used to be a tradition for members of the cavalry to pronounce it 'calvary' in both England and the US. I don't know if that's still the case.

  2. Gene Anderson said,

    March 27, 2015 @ 7:47 am

    It's actually more than that. "Calvary" is a time-honored rural (probably especially Midwestern and Southern) way to say it. I grew up with that in Nebraska in the 1940s and 1950s. There was a country song at the time, "In her hair she wore a yellow ribbon, Wore it for her lover in the US Calvary." I have no idea if the song originally had "cavalry," but everybody sang it (more or less as a folk song) with "calvary." Assimilation to Jesus' place of martyrdom is clearly a factor here.

  3. Dan Curtin said,

    March 27, 2015 @ 7:50 am

    Perhaps the calvary pronunciation reflects hyperbole about the pain of saddle sores.

  4. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 27, 2015 @ 7:58 am

    Another hypothesis is that Johnson says ['kæ.vəl.ɹi] in ordinary life, but he or the writer or director thought that ['kæl.və.ɹi] was more appropriate to the character. When Marion Morrison became John Wayne, he had to practice saying "ain't".

  5. Norman Smith said,

    March 27, 2015 @ 8:52 am

    I think I was about 20 years old before I realized that the words were not the same. Until then, I thought it was mildly funny that mounted soldiers were named after the place where Christ was crucified. No one in my community (south western Ontario) ever corrected my pronunciation; I found out at university, to my chagrin. Until then, I always heard the two words pronounced the same.

  6. Duncan said,

    March 27, 2015 @ 10:01 am

    I had been pronouncing them the same, knowing no different, and in fact would have written them the same as well. I'd guess it's due to far more exposure to calvary than cavalry as a kid. (I was a missionary kid, after all.) That, and almost certainly coming across the word first in written form as I was an avid reader, and jumping to conclusions based on the general shape of the word without stopping to actually read it.

    Much like "towing the line", I'd have /sworn/ I had it right, too, right up until Language Log straightened me out! =:^)

    Of course now it'll bug me when I hear it as "calvary". Oh, well…

  7. Michael Carasik said,

    March 27, 2015 @ 10:19 am

    Can't find it, but I vividly remember something A. J. Liebling once wrote. An editor had told him: "Never use the word 'cavalry,' because people will read it as 'cavalry."

    It made no sense, so I turned the page back and read, "Never use the word 'calvary' …"

  8. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 27, 2015 @ 11:29 am

    I also remember having these words muddled up as a kid and probably well into my teens, and, now that I think about it, no authority figure attempting to disambiguate them. I.e., to the extent various English teachers over the years would have pairs of oft-confused words they would specifically focus us on, and then test us on our ability to use the right one in the right context this particular pair was never, as best as I recall, a subject of instruction. Maybe the religous connotations of one of the pair caused some sort of this-is-a-public-school-so-don't-talk-about-it reflex? Or maybe they're just comparatively rare lexical items when compared to affect v. effect and others where someone did try to pound the distinction into us.

  9. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 27, 2015 @ 11:35 am

    Now that I think about it, the point at which I probably became able to disambiguate them successfully and remember which was which was probably the point in my teens when it clicked into my awareness that "cavalier" and "caballero" were obviously cognates of the guys-on-horseback one rather than the place-of-crucifixion one. But I'm confident I was more interested in etymologies and cognates than 99%+ of American teenagers of my generation, and I certainly can't fault Dwayne Johnson for not sharing my eccentric interests.

  10. Jen said,

    March 27, 2015 @ 11:41 am

    I never get the cavalry muddled up, but have to think *very* hard about the difference between Calvary and Calgary…

  11. Bloix said,

    March 27, 2015 @ 11:48 am

    Joolery is more or less standard, isn't it? My dictionary has joo-el-ry, but I don't I've ever heard anyone say that.

  12. Chris Eagle said,

    March 27, 2015 @ 12:48 pm

    "Calvary" for "cavalry" is very common (in both speech and writing) among 11-year-olds studying history at my school in southeast England. "Pheasant" for "peasant" is also widespread.

  13. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 27, 2015 @ 12:53 pm

    I'm wondering if actual military service (at least in time and place where the word would come up at least some of the time) would tend to affect pronunciation, not just because of the risk of being yelled at by the drill sergeant for "saying it wrong" but because of the clipped form "cav" (e.g. the guys who in Vietnam used helicopters rather than horses were "Air Cav"), which it seems to me would force the "correct" option rather strongly. But one can find via googling instances of "air calv" as a clipped form, in posts that seem to be written by veterans and/or people with specific military interests.

    [(myl) /l/-vocalization comes into the picture here. My normal pronunciation of e.g. belfry is something like ['bɛʊ.fri]. And the /l/ in Johnson's pronunciation of calvary is also somewhat u-like.]

  14. Carrington Dixon said,

    March 27, 2015 @ 1:47 pm

    No, military service doesn't seem to help. To this day, I say 'cavalry' if I think first, but 'calvary' if I speak without thinking.

    In my experience at least, the confusion seems to go only one way. Many people say 'calvary' for the military unit. I can't recall noticing anyone say 'Cavalry' for the place of crucifixion.

  15. bratschegirl said,

    March 27, 2015 @ 1:48 pm

    @Bloix: I always say something between "joo-el-ry" and "jool-ry," but never "joolery.". I didn't know anyone who said it the other way until I was at least in my teens (I'm from California).

    I'm noticing that both this and the subject of today's post concern placement of the letter "L". Is there something slippery about that "L," that it likes to wander from syllable to syllable?

  16. Captain Bringdown said,

    March 27, 2015 @ 2:07 pm

    "I never get the cavalry muddled up, but have to think *very* hard about the difference between Calvary and Calgary…"

    What difference?

  17. Lazar said,

    March 27, 2015 @ 3:25 pm

    For jewelry, I say "jool-ry". The "joolery" pronunciation would make more sense with the British spelling "jewellery", although I doubt that that plays any role in how people say it.

    @J. W. Brewer: And don't forget its etymological doublet, chivalry.

  18. Karl Weber said,

    March 27, 2015 @ 3:30 pm

    C.S. Lewis puns on this word-pair in his spiritual sci-fi novel THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH. Near the end of the book, the "curse of Babel" descends on the villainous characters during a banquet, rendering their conversation increasingly disordered and incomprehensible. One of the first signs of the process is when the after-dinner speaker describes something with the phrase “as gross an anachronism as to trust to Calvary for salvation in a modern war."

  19. David Morris said,

    March 27, 2015 @ 3:40 pm

    @Chris Eagle: what kind of school are you at, that students say 'pheasant' and 'peasant'? I think I got through my entire schooling in Australia without saying either word even once.

    I suggest that you don't mention to your 11-year-old students the career choice of 'pheasant plucker'.

  20. Ø said,

    March 27, 2015 @ 3:55 pm

    Is "cavilry" a word?

  21. Rakau said,

    March 27, 2015 @ 4:19 pm

    And how do North Americans make "aluminum" out of aluminium when they manage (I think) to pronounce the second 'i' in condominium as a separate syllable?

  22. Lazar said,

    March 27, 2015 @ 6:05 pm

    @Rakau: Because "aluminum" isn't a reduction or slurring of "aluminium"; it is, in fact, the older form of the word. Humphry Davy initially called it "alumium", then "aluminum"; but the British press then decided to regularize it to "aluminium", in line with other chemical elements, and it was this name that caught on outside of the USA and Canada.

  23. Plane said,

    March 27, 2015 @ 6:10 pm

    It seems aluminum is actually the older word, if only slightly. It doesn't appear to be an altered form of aluminium. See Etymonline.

  24. Chris C. said,

    March 27, 2015 @ 6:35 pm

    @David Morris — "what kind of school are you at, that students say 'pheasant' and 'peasant'?"

    They were studying history; presumably one mentions peasant uprisings and so on from time to time.

    Where a pheasant is a kind of bird you might often see outdoors, there's no reason not to mention them. The males are difficult NOT to notice.

  25. Brett said,

    March 27, 2015 @ 6:43 pm

    I, having grown up a secular Jew, had never encountered the name "Calvary" when I went to the regional round of the National Geography Bee at the Calvary Baptist Church. I remember vaguely wondering why a church should be named after a military formation, but I think I chalked it up to evangelical weirdness.

    @Bloix, bratschegirl: I would have thought that I said jool-ree; however, I know from reading Language Log not to trust my intuition about such things. In fact, it appears that there is barely any l sound at all in my normal pronunciation; unless I am enunciating clearly, the only difference between "jewelry" and "Jewry" is the vowel length.

    @Rakau: Since we spell in "aluminum," there's nothing at all surprising about how American's pronounce the name.

  26. Tim said,

    March 28, 2015 @ 2:26 am

    My god, for years and years I've noticed Christian institutions with what I thought was 'cavalry' in the name, I assumed there must be some inane reason why Christians like to compare themselves with mounted infantry, probably some weird bible saying… Only now do I understand. Mind blown.

  27. Jimbino said,

    March 28, 2015 @ 10:16 am

    I always though it interesting that Algeria is rendered as Argelia in Spanish and Portuguese.

  28. Rodger C said,

    March 28, 2015 @ 10:49 am

    I recall a Calvary Episcopal Church whose newsletter was called the Calvary Trumpet. It wasn't the same one where St. Martin's Guild gave tours of the premises … (I swear I'm not making either of these up.)

  29. Rodger C said,

    March 28, 2015 @ 10:54 am

    When I was a boy, a TV show called Omnibus was sponsored by Aluminium Ltd. of Canada. It was a sort of variety show for the educated, of a kind that would later be a PBS show. They had a commercial in which a woman teaches her husband to say the sponsor's name correctly instead of "Aluminum Ltd." Then he said, "Right! Aluminium Limited! They advertise on Omnibius!"

  30. Brian said,

    March 28, 2015 @ 2:28 pm

    Changing the topic ever so slightly – foliage v. foilage. I plead guilty on this one as well as "call out the cavalry."

    From Simpsons episode 4F05 "Burns, Baby Burns"

    Marge: Next to Spring and Winter, Fall is my absolute favorite season. Just look at all this beautiful foilage.
    Lisa: It's not "foilage," Mom, it's "foliage." Fo-liage.
    Marge: That's what I said, foilage. It doesn't take a nuclear scientist to pronounce foilage.

  31. Harry said,

    March 30, 2015 @ 6:15 am

    Surprisingly common in my experience is "arks" for ask. For example: "I will arks him about that". Usually weeded out in the growing up process, but still retained by some adults

  32. Rodger C said,

    March 30, 2015 @ 7:03 am

    @Harry: Cf. Old English axian. In spite of this pedigree, "I axed him" is also stigmatized in the US, where it's associated with African Americans (inaccurately, if the association is meant to be exclusive).

  33. Isaac D said,

    March 30, 2015 @ 5:13 pm

    I have frequently heard cavalry pronounced as calvary, particularly in American Evangelical Christian subcultures, which is why I've always assumed it was due to assimilation with the (far more frequently encountered in those subcultures) proper noun Calvary.

  34. John said,

    March 30, 2015 @ 7:53 pm

    I became unconfused about the difference between cavalry and Calvary recently. Cavalry, from French cheval.

  35. djw said,

    March 30, 2015 @ 8:41 pm

    Tim, the Christian bible does have a passage that says to "put on the full armor of God" and then goes on to describe that armor, and one of the popular old hymns in my [much] younger days was "Onward Christian Soldiers," so yeah, there's some military influence there.

  36. BZ said,

    March 31, 2015 @ 3:18 pm

    All this time I thought Calvary had something to do with Calvinism (I'm Jewish). Never confused it with Cavalry, though, and ca't recall hearing cavalry mispronounced (or hearing Calvary pronounced at all).

  37. BZ said,

    March 31, 2015 @ 3:18 pm

    All this time I thought Calvary had something to do with Calvinism (I'm Jewish). Never confused it with Cavalry, though, and ca't recall hearing cavalry mispronounced (or hearing Calvary pronounced at all).

  38. BZ said,

    March 31, 2015 @ 3:18 pm

    All this time I thought Calvary had something to do with Calvinism (I'm Jewish). Never confused it with Cavalry, though, and ca't recall hearing cavalry mispronounced (or hearing Calvary pronounced at all).

RSS feed for comments on this post