WE HEAR IT and we say it incorrectly! We usually hear “fortay” when people say “forte,” an almost universally mispronounced word! I can’t say it’s a part of everyone’s daily vocabulary, but if you read enough you’ll come across it regularly. I’m writing this because it was used in a couple of movies that we watched recently. Unfortunately, while the word and its mispronunciation in both films stuck in my head, the titles of the two movies did not.
Before we address the near universal mismouthing of forte, we need a definition of the word. In modern usage, forte is a noun meaning the “strong point of a person,” or “that in which one excels.”
The word forte apparently originated in the middle 17th century, taken from the French fort, which means the “strong point of a sword blade.” In fact, if you look forte up in many of today’s dictionaries, the primary definition still refers to swords. 1
The French derived their use from the Middle French fort, which referred to a stronghold, or fortress. This early French use was apparently lifted from the Latin fortis, which means “strong.” 2
The now-familiar ‘e’ was added to the end of fort in the 18th century in imitation of the Italian word forte, which also means “strong.”
In classical music notation, forte is an instruction to play loudly. It is symbolized as a stylized ‘f’ written cursively (above) and is a two-syllable word pronounced FOR-TAY. This could be the source of the mispronunciation of the noun discussed above. As notation,
A forte is not a fortay
Forte is almost universally mispronounced: with a few exceptions, we all say “fortay.” For example: “Toranaga, who is usually among predictable people, craves the intellectual challenge of unpredictability. Unpredictability is his fortay as a leader.”
We all say fortay—but it’s incorrect. The sentence should be read so: “Toranaga, who is usually among predictable people, craves the intellectual challenge of unpredictability. Unpredictability is his fort as a leader.” 3
Forte is a single syllable word that is spoken exactly as the fort in Fort Apache and Fort Sumter. Now, dear readers, you know.
And, armed with this knowledge, here is my suggestion: forget it. Go out into the world saying “Toranaga’s fortay” as a leader was his unpredictability.
If you refer to “Toranaga’s fort,” everyone will think of a walled castle or encampment with armed guards keeping watch!
1 According to Merriam-Webster, a fort is “the part of a sword or foil blade that is between the middle and the hilt and that is the strongest part of the blade.”
2 Middle French lasted from the 14th century AD to the early 17th century.
3 The two sentences refers to Yoshi Toranaga-noh-Minowara, Lord of the Eight Provinces, from James Clavell’s novel Shogun, and is taken from James Clavell: A Critical Companion.