• My shtruggle

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    WASHINGTON, DC: I have a major apology to deliver here. It is particularly galling to me, and it’s going to get messy.

    There’s an oddity of spoken language that I first noticed around the beginning of the George W. Bush adminishtration, pronounced like that. It was as though the new President had issued some secret directive to pronounce str- words as shtr- words, which was particularly odd since, according to the dictionary there is no such thing as a shtr-word.

    Actually, if your dictionary is thick enough, you might find exactly one: “shtreimel,” which is a wildly expensive type of fur hat that I will not make fun of, inasmuch as it is commonly associated with a religion. But if you Google images of it, you, being a less noble person than I am, will possibly wet your pants. This hat resembles an ottoman and would be very useful if you decided to do headstands. But I digress.

    My point is, no English word should be pronounced with a “shtr” sound. Yet suddenly, around 2001 or thereabouts, I began hearing politicians talk about the need for “shtrength against terrorism.” We launched “air shtrikes.” This linguistic hiccup was particularly rancid to my ears. For one thing, it sounds shtupid. But there is also a faint echo of … Hitler.

    In German, words beginning with str- are always pronounced shtr-. The greatest line in “Casablanca” — “Major Strasser has been shot. Round up the usual suspects” — has always been ruined for me because Captain Renault, the Nazi toady who should know better, pronounces “Strasser” like an American.

    Still with me? OK, so over the years, shtr- has been getting more and more ubiquitous. Just a few minutes ago, I disgustedly switched off NPR after being told how an Amtrak train “shtruck” a backhoe.

    OK, you are thinking that I am obsessing over something trivial, which is true, and that I am very possibly deluded, which is not true. It’s a thing. It turns out that professional linguists have been discussing it passionately among themselves, in their blogs and whatnot. It is an example of something called “alveopalatal assimilation,” and though everyone agrees it is on the upswing, there is no consensus on why. It does not appear to be of regional or ethnic origin.

    This is where my apology comes in. As a committed uber-leftist demagogue who blames George W. Bush for most of the ills of the world, I did so here, too. I’ve written about it. I rant to friends. In my memory, George W. Bush was the first and worst perpetrator of the “shtr-” phenomenon, its main enabler. I cringe when I hear him saying “shtrength” in my head.

    Alas, my head appears to be the only place he says it. This column was going to be filled with righteous liberal fury at yet another way W stupidized (and Nazified!) our culture, until I listened to a bunch of his speeches. Nope. Innocent. On this issue I have been casually slandering him for years for reasons involving political bias and having the memory of a doddering centenarian.

    Then my research took me somewhere I didn’t want to go. I like Bernie Sanders, but he just said the Panama free-trade agreement “is something I very shtrongly oppose.” Bernie, it turns out, is a recidivist shtr-flinger. But there is someone worse, someone whose use of shtr- is so flagrant, so crystal clear, and so consistent in her speech that it actually caught the attention of the linguists, who have declared her the worst violator of all. This happens to be someone whom most reasonable people respect and admire, a National Treasure whom I am now obliged to smear.

    Video is damning. Here she is in London, talking about all the “ekshtraordinary” women she has met (http://bit.ly/24fJJqU), and her father’s “shtruggle” with illness. Here she is as a commencement speaker, discussing “shtrategic” choices (http://bit.ly/1SuP8my). Here she is talking about people being “stopped on the shtreet” because of the color of their skin (http://bit.ly/1SFmRvF). She says “frushtrated.” She says “shtructural.” She’s incorrigible. Michelle Obama. This has me all shtressed out.

    © 2016, THE WASHINGTON POST WRITERS GROUP

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