Sometimes watching or listening to something familiar at an odd time can unearth distinctions to words that were unnoticed before.
That’s what happened to me this morning when I had a little time for my personal “Insomnia Theatre.” I was tired of the news, but too tired to sleep, so I put on a rerun of a detective story I’d seen before.
Then one character said to another that they couldn’t skip investigating a room, because “That’s your forte!”
That’s your loud? I thought. Forte is the Italian word I’m familiar with from my cello adventures — it means playing loudly. Fortissimo is very loud, mezzo forte is medium loud (which often seems to me just the same as ordinary forte — not needing the adjective).
On the other hand, fort (note the lack of a final e) is the French word for strong. That room in the fictional investigation shouldn’t have been skipped because it was the assistant’s “strong suit,” or fort. But most English-speakers, at least in the U.S., aren’t either familiar or comfortable with the French rule that the final consonant shouldn’t be pronounced if there isn’t a vowel after it.
No wonder the use of fort never caught on — it would sound like “That’s your for.”
There’s a feminine French usage (not for me, but for feminine words) that does have the T pronounced, because it’s spelled forte — pronounced fort, like the military place in English. “That’s your fort” would come off sounding like “That’s where you keep your soldiers.”
Readers probably developed the mispronounced usages, seeing one language’s “forte” and not bothering to think of what the correct meaning was in English, just pronouncing what they knew.
I’m ready to retreat to my fortified (strengthened) vocabulary when words get mistreated like these. I’d rather tell people “That’s my strength” or “That’s my strong suit” instead of risking being misunderstood with fort or forte.
But I’ll still use it when I want to play something loudly on my cello.
Margaret Serious has a page on Facebook.
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