Sherbert vs. Sherbet
Sherbert is not a word.
There are plenty of people out there who insist that it is, and do so with conviction. This week, I learned that, for some, discovering that the word in question is actually sherbet (pronounced “sure bet”) is a “there’s no Santa Claus”-level, shock to the system.
Urban Dictionary defines sherbert “How dumbfucks spell sherbet,” going as far as to use it in the sentence “It’s SHERBET, not SHERBERT, dumbfuck.”
To make a long story short, I got sucked into a conversation at work this week about the difference between the idioms “flesh out” and “flush out.” I said that misuse of both is common, though not as bad as saying “sherbert.” Doing that, I said, can make you sound like a hillbilly.
With that, the room fell silent and everyone around me shot hateful looks as though I’d just said, “I hate babies.” Then the hateful looks turned to defiance. “You’re wrong,” I was told.
For the following 15 minutes, I was put on trial by my friends and peers, having to prove what I thought was, well, common sense: Sherbert isn’t a word.
I had to pull up exhibits of sherbet from every major ice cream-maker on earth. Go figure, there’s not a second “r” to be found anywhere.
I urgently reached out to writers across Twitter for confirmation, specifically seeking backup from Scott Smith/Chicago Magazine, Frank Sennett/Time Out Chicago, and Amy Guth/Chicago Tribune. They backed me up without fail.
“But,” one friend told me, “Everyone I know says ‘sherbert.’ ‘Sherbet’ doesn’t even sound right.”
“But it’s proper English,” I said.
“I think what everyone else says is more proper because no one says ‘sherbet.’”
I was stunned. I had to argue why mass mispronunciation of a word doesn’t justify willful dismissal of diction. Worse, it was an argument I wasn’t going to be allowed to win.
Back in high school, I made a similar diction mistake. I had to write and orate a five minute recollection of a personal experience for my Public Speaking class (shoutout to instructor Molly Magee). Within the first paragraph of the speech, I used the word “awry.” I’d seen the word used in print for years (and by print, I mean Marvel Comics), but had never heard it spoken. In my head I’d always heard it as, and in my speech I read it as, “AW-ree.” When my speech was over, Molly Magee asked me, as I remained in front of the class, “What was that word you used, back in the third sentence?”
“AW-ree,” I said.
“Spell it, please.”
“Oh!” she said, “That’s pronounced “a-RYE.” I was surprised; probably a little embarrassed, too. I learned from it, though. I’ve said it the correct way ever since. Sherbert-speakers don’t flip as readily, I found out.
This (exercise? discussion? argument?) has led to the revelation that some dictionaries now list “sherbert” as a secondary pronunciation under “sherbet.” Here’s what Primer Magazine amusingly had to say about that practice:
“This is one of those words that ultimately had to abandon its crusade
for righteousness and now has been corrupted to the point where
dictionaries may list the incorrect pronunciation as acceptable because
of just how rampant the ignorance grew to be. But there’s only one ‘R’
in ‘sherbet,’ America… no matter how awesome the rainbow flavor is,
there’s still only one ‘R’.”
For further reference, I Googled “commonly mispronounced words,” and got the following links, all of which include “sherbet.”
I’m not the Grammar Police; in fact, I’m far from it. I was just shocked by how tenacious people can be about clinging to “sherbert” (or as they say overseas, “sorbert”).