Jeopardy Pronunciation Problem

Jeopardy is advertised as “America’s Favorite Quiz Show,” but an answer on the show for July 10, 2023 demonstrates that—as far as the writers are concerned—its default “American” occupies a specific region and not the nation as a whole.

Homonyms (words pronounced the same although spelled differently) was one of the categories on July 10, 2023.

Here are the clues:

flung and ceremonial chair

castle protector and dust particle

a large sea creature and a loud lamentation

hard to unravel and badly behaved

finished and drab

Four of the five clues present no problem.

flung and ceremonial chair: thrown/throne

castle protector and dust particle: moat/mote

a large sea creature and a loud lamentation: whale/wail

finished and drab: done/dun

NOTE: One could quibble about whale and wail. Many US speakers pronounce whale with a breathy sound for the wh, but even so, the words rhyme. Close enough.

The problem

The problem is with the answer for “hard to unravel and badly behaved.”

The answer expected by the writers (and given by a contestant) was knotty/naughty.

I object.

For millions of English speakers—US and British–knotty and naughty are NOT homonyms.

The “short o” sound

One of the English speech sounds is the “short o” vowel sound.

British and US speakers pronounce “short o” differently. For Americans, it’s an open /ah/ sound. For the British, it’s more rounded.

NOTE: I can’t get the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) symbols to show in this post, so I’ll be creative.

American pronunciation of short o is /ah/, as in hot and mop.

The “AW” sound

The English speech sound /aw/ can be spelled several different ways:

aw as in saw

au as in cause

augh as in taught

ough as in fought

NOTE: This sound can even be spelled with a single letter a when the a is followed by an l, as in walk and all.

/AW /is  the vowel sound heard in the word naughty.

Check the dictionary

The Jeopardy credits cite the Oxford English Dictionary as a source.

Before calling knotty and naughty “homonyms,” the writers should have checked their illustrious source.

Although a British dictionary, the OED provides US spellings and pronunciations when they differ from the British. When a word has more than one pronunciation, the more common pronunciation is given first.

For knotty, the OED gives only one choice for US pronunciation: /NAH-dee/

For naughty, the OED gives two US pronunciations:/ NAW-dee/ and /NAH-dee/.

The AW pronunciation is given first.

NOTE: I question the /d/ sound shown for the t because I think I pronounce the word with a t. I could be wrong. When I dictate messages into my iPhone, Siri usually writes rider for writer.)

What does  an American dictionary show?

Like the OED, Merriam-Webster gives two pronunciations for naughty. The first one given has the AW pronunciation. The second has the short o sound.

NOTE: M-W shows both knotty and naughty with a /t/ pronunciation (not /d/).

The homonym category

By all means, the homonym category is a good one for Jeopardy. However, considering that English rejoices in more than 6,000 homonyms, the writers can surely find examples that most English-speakers agree on.