Dear Word Detective: I was shocked to see no origin on your website of the word “forte,” which is always mispronounced. It is actually correct to say “fort” (no “ay” sound for the “e”) unless you are using it as a musical term. It means “strength” (“My forte is painting”) and comes from fact that sword makers could make any part of the sword the strongest according to what you are fighting. The weakest part of the sword was called the “foible” (“I have many foibles,” i.e., weaknesses). — Dale.
Well, as I frequently have occasion to tell folks, it’s a big language with lots of words, and it’s gonna take me some time to work my way through all of them. On the other hand, I’ve been writing three columns per week for seventeen years, so that’s 2652 words and phrases I’ve gotten around to explaining. Y’know, I did that multiplication just now expecting the result to be inspiring, but it’s actually kind of scary. At an average length of 500 words per column, that’s one million, three hundred and twenty-six thousand words (1,326,000), or more than five times the length of James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” Good heavens. I could have been a literary immortal (or at least Stephen King) instead of arguing over “that” versus “which.”
Oh well, might as well keep digging. Your point is a good one, though your conclusion about the pronunciation of “forte” is open to debate. Before we get to that, however, let’s take a look at “forte” and “foible.”
There are actually two “fortes” in English, one that we adopted from French, the other from Italian. The French word “fort” (meaning “strong,” from the Latin “fortis”) gave us the “forte” meaning “strong point” or “thing at which a person excels” (“Mr. Selwyn had a forte for horse-racing,” 1870), as well as such common English words as “fort” (meaning “stronghold” or “fortified structure”), “force” and “fortify.” But you’re correct that the first use of this “forte” in English was to mean the strongest part of a sword blade, usually the part closest to the handle. And you’re also right about “foible,” which we adopted from Old French and use today to mean “quirk” or “weak point of one’s character,” but which originally meant the weakest part of a sword blade, usually the half toward the tip. This section was also known as the “feeble,” another word rooted in that Old French “foible.”
The other “forte” is, as I noted, from Italian, and also means “strong,” but is used in English exclusively as a musical term to mean “loud.” This “forte” is also found in the term “pianoforte” (from the Italian “piano e forte,” literally “soft and loud”) of which our modern English “piano” is a shortening.
The Italian musical term “forte” is indisputably pronounced in English, as it would be in Italian, in two syllables with the “e” given a long “a” sound (for-TAY). “Forte” in the sense of “strong point,” however, is from French, and, going by the French model, should be pronounced “fort,” one syllable. (Actually, to be truly faithful to modern French, it should be pronounced “for,” without the “t”.)
Purists over the years have made a point of distinguishing the pronunciations of the two “fortes,” singling out the pronunciation “for-TAY” for “strong point” for condemnation as being at best slightly gauche and at worst a crime against civilization itself. As usual in language correctness campaigns, very few people have been listening, and the pronunciation “for-TAY” is rapidly becoming standard. In fact, 74 percent of the American Heritage Dictionary usage panel recently polled preferred the two-syllable “for-TAY” pronunciation. At this point, I’d say that either pronunciation is acceptable, but that more people will understand you if you bite the bullet and say “for-TAY.”