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THE WORD is harmless enough. It has five letters. It doesn't have an inordinate number of consonants or vowels. It is commonly used in conversation.

But nearly always, it is pronounced incorrectly.

And that rankles true verbivores.

"Oh, yes. 'Forte,'" says Paul Brians with a perceptible sigh, pronouncing the word meaning a person's strength as it should be, monosyllabically without a flourishing finish on the word's final vowel. "I've given up on that one. It's a dead issue. If you went around saying 'FORT,' people wouldn't know what you're talking about. It's an error that has become a non-error."

The use, or some might say, abuse, of the English language, and the standardization of non-standard English is endless. A joke is hysterical when it's really hilarious. People buy a chaise lounge when it's really a chaise longue. Forte, probably confused

with the musical dynamic of the same spelling that's borrowed from Italian, gains an extra syllable.

It's enough to make a lexicologist wonder: Are we all just a bunch of idiots?

"I don't think so," says Brians, a professor at Washington State University who manages the Web site "Common Errors in English" (http://www.wsu.edu/brians/errors/errors.html) and who recently wrote a companion book called "Common Errors in English Usage" (William, James and Co., $15). "People have always abused language. The specific abuses they commit just change with time, so we notice the new ones."

But today, it's quite likely that those abuses and misuses are worming their way into standard English usage at a quicker rate.

Unaccepted pronunciations become accepted — like the grudging acceptance of a two-syllable forte by the Random House Webster's College Dictionary that reads in an almost exasperating tone when it says, "a two-syllable pronunciation is increasingly heard, esp. from educated speakers, and is now also considered standard."

Words that don't exist earn dictionary entries — such as "irregardless," a word that may have been so abused by former Raiders coach Jon Gruden that it's earned a spot in most dictionaries, even though "regardless" would suffice.

And words that previously had one definition gain altogether new ones — such as "boo," one of the latest words to enter the esteemed Oxford Dictionary of English that has nothing to do with ghosts but instead means a person's boyfriend or girlfriend.

"People crave novelty in language, and we have to reflect what's going on," says Oxford American Dictionary editor Erin McKean, based in Chicago. "Dictionaries are recorders of language, not guardians of it. We describe what people actually say and write, not what we think they should say and write."

The seeming increase in language abuse might be attributed to the current preferred modes of communication, which are heavily text-based in terms of e-mails, text messages and blogs, yet at the same time are somewhat illiterate, in terms of lagging readership of newspapers, magazines, books and other resources that are written — and, more important, edited — by professionals.

"The fact is that people read much less than they used to, but they're writing more," says Brians. "They're more aurally-based writers — they write things based on what they've heard."

Courtesy the Internet, those misuses, abuses, slang and shorthand are broadcast to the world, or at least, the World Wide Web, where they earn a standard usage of their own. Combine that with the fact that the new young crop of dictionary editors are more attuned with the Internet than their predecessors — McKean is one of the youngest, at 33, while the Oxford English Dictionary is helmed by Jesse Sheidlower, 36 — and it suddenly makes perfect sense why "podcast" is now in the dictionary.

"All the lexicographers I know who are in their 30s spend an unconscionable amount of time on the Internet," says McKean. "We're looking for language. Language is there."

That's where McKean has found words like farb (not authentic, badly done), nomenklatura (non-literally; by analogy), drabble (a short story of 100 words or fewer), haxie (a hack for the Macintosh operating system) and swancho (a combination poncho/sweater).

Though they're not in the dictionary yet, they may be coming soon to one near you. Each word is categorized by McKean as "on the brink." None of them may be right, correct, proper or even real. But McKean calls them innovations. And innovation, she says, is the essence of language.

"I think innovation is good for language. I find it all fascinating," says McKean. "I don't know if I'd want to read a whole novel in it. I'd find it wearying. But some might really like reading a whole novel based on innovation. Of course, they might be 12."

But some wonder where to draw the line. Proactive is in dictionaries because government-speak made the word ubiquitous. The use of nouns as verbs, such as defense, came about because sports-speak made it trendy. Word nerds call each of these examples errors. But that didn't keep them out of the dictionary.

And that means Prince-speak — the shorthand popular in e-mails and text messages that turns words like "for" and "you" and "are" to "4" and "U" and "R," a practice possibly first started by the musical artist, Prince — might gain entrance to future dictionaries, too. Even though, technically, it's laden with errors.

"The whole concept of error is a social one, anyway," says Brians. "We don't have a French Academy in English. There is no standard. All we can count on is usage communities."

That's why most students of language realize, at some point, that verbiage just can't be taken too seriously. Unless, of course, your motives are ulterior.

"For something like forte, what's happening is what I call 'The Boss Problem,'" says McKean. "You want to look something up to see if what your boss said is right or not. Forte as 'for'tay' may be less savored, but it's perfectly reasonable through use."

McKean pauses. Then, as an afterthought, she opens a whole new can of worms.

"You do know," she says, "that 'bird' used to be pronounced 'brid.'"

You can e-mail Candace Murphy at

cmurphy@angnewspapers.com or call (925) 416-4814.