The Buzz on Banal

When it comes to iffy pronunciations, how do you spell “insecurity?”  With five letters: b-a-n-a-l. Over the past century the articulation of the adjective banal has been all over the American English map, and even the most dedicated linguists have trouble deciding which pronunciation is preferred. The upshot? Any one of the word’s three variations is safe to use.

Here’s a brief review of the aural ups and downs of banal in the United States:

  • BAY-nal was the most commonly heard pronunciation in the post-World War II era.
  • Ba-NAL (rhymes with “canal”) began to gain favor in the 1980s as the a of the first syllable was flattened to a schwa* and the stress switched to the second syllable.
  • Ba-NAHL, now standard in the United Kingdom, vied for dominance with ba-NAL in the 1990s and still hangs on in the United States… but ba-NAL pulled ahead in the new century.

That yours truly generally chooses BAY-nal no doubt shows my age – but who cares? It’s not as if one were mispronouncing mother. Those wondering how their choice might be perceived by the most erudite of listeners could always choose a synonym of banal, weighing which word fits the bill most precisely: trite, mundane, commonplace, bland, insipid, dull, unoriginal, clichéd, vapid, or – well, grab a thesaurus.

What you don’t want to say is BAN-al (rhymes with “panel”). This variation had its day in he sun in the Roaring Twenties but went out with the Charleston and the mystifying phrase “23 skidoo!”

 *An unstressed, neutral vowel sound signified in writing by the phonetic symbol ə – an e turned upside down and backwards. Spoken, the schwa sounds like uh.

 

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