I was out on my government-sanctioned neighborhood walk during Sunday’s Rose Garden COVID-19 briefing. When I returned I noticed this tweet from writer and podcaster Bob Cesca.
The president doesn’t know how to pronounce “scourge” yet he keeps repeating it.
— Bob Cesca (@bobcesca_go) March 29, 2020
How does he pronounce scourge? I couldn’t find audio, but I did find other comments indicating that he rhymes it with gorge instead of with urge (the standard pronunciation).
It’s a favorite word of his (or, more likely, of one of his speechwriters), and [skohrj] is his preferred, irregular pronunciation. In his March 23, 2020, COVID-19 briefing he referred to COVID-19 twice as “the invisible scourge”; he’s also called it “this hidden scourge.” (At least he’s stopped calling it the “Chinese coronavirus.”) He talked about “the scourge [skohrj] of anti-Semitism” after the 2018 mass shooting in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, and “the scourge [skohrj] of drug addiction in America” in a March 2018 speech in New Hampshire. He also mentioned “the scourge [skohrj] of drug addiction” in his 2018 State of the Union address. (See comment from “Dagwood” on this Language Log post.)
With all this repetition, you’d think someone would have coached him on the correct pronunciation. On the other hand, this is a man who pronounces “plasma” as “plozma.” (And more: Here’s The Daily Show’s 2019 reel of Trumpian mispronunciations.)
The original meaning of scourge: a whip or lash
Scourge is a word with antique and religious resonances. It came into English from French in the 13th century as both a noun and a verb meaning “whip”; its Latin root is excoriāre, to strip off the hide. (It’s unrelated to scour, which seems to have an Old Norse origin.) In English translations of the New Testament, Jesus is “scourged”—flagellated—before his crucifixion.
By the 14th century, scourge was used figuratively to mean a figure of divine chastisement; by the 16th century its sense had expanded to include “a devastating disease.” We still see references to, say, “the scourge of polio.”
Attila the Hun, known by the time of his death as “the scourge of God.” Painting by Delacroix.
Trump isn’t the only one coupling “coronavirus” or “COVID-19” and “scourge.” The New York Times has used it repeatedly, alternating with “pandemic.” The Washington Post relies on it, too. The word’s brutal associations and, perhaps, its echo of surge remind us of the disease’s deadliness and scope. If we’re going to press it into service, let’s honor its pronunciation.
Scourge of the Underworld, a Marvel Comics character created in 1985 “as a plot device intended to thin the criminal population of the Marvel Universe.”