Or are there two distinct words I’ve mistakenly considered to be one and the same?
Or does it have something to do with my dialect?
(Note: I considered using only IPA symbols, but demurred over concerns it might be too confusing. However, I have used two of them because we don’t really have any unambiguous way of “spelling” those sounds using ordinary letters. In what follows the schwa symbol “ə” means any syllable destressed to the point where its vowel can’t be distinguished, like the first syllable in “decide”. “Æ” is like the ‘a’ in “cat”. )
Many years ago, before the word “harass” came more and more to refer to workplace sexual harassment, I always heard it pronounced with the accent on the second syllable, i.e. something like “həh-RASS” and “həh-RASS-ment”. Because the issue of workplace harassment hadn’t yet really been broached in public discourse yet, the verb (as I understood it) meant to persistently bother or annoy someone in small ways. Colloquially, it also meant to overburden someone with requests, tasks, or assignments, which in themselves were usually not unreasonably onerous, but for whatever reason were unusually numerous or frequent. In casual speech it was often used in the passive voice. “I’m so harassed!” usually meant that the speaker merely felt overwhelmed by heavier than usual day-to-day responsibilities, with the use of passive voice eliminating the need to specify whoever was doing the harassing. (Or, even to suggest that it was only one person doing it.)
Flash forward to the present day. “Harassment” now refers almost exclusively to sexual harassment, and the word is almost always pronounced “HARE- əss-ment”. I don’t think the simple verb forms “harass”, “harasses” “harassed”, and “harassing” are used much at all anymore, so I can’t form an opinion on how those words are typically pronounced. While the various forms of “harass” must have been sufficiently common that it made sense to apply the word to a type of workplace aggression, I don’t think it was all that common before that time.
My question is this: Did the pronunciation of the word actually change, or is it a misperception on my part due to the dialect I was raised in? As well as I can recall, “harass” and all its variants were not very common until everyone became aware of workplace sexual harassment. I grew up speaking standard American with no dialectical peculiarities of which I’m aware, except that a few words in “standard American broadcast-speak” come out with slightly different stress. For instance, I and nearly everybody around me refers to a fully grown human being as an “uh-DULT”, while in “Broadcast Land” it comes out more like “Æ-dult”. (Once, when I was about 10, an elevator operator at the L.A. County Museum of Natural History said I couldn’t use her elevator unless I was with an “AY-dult”.) I think this variance in pronunciation has a distribution similar to that of “PROH-grəm” used to mean a major organized effort by many people toward some objective, but almost never anything that can be watched on a TV or run on a computer.
For anyone else old enough to remember the late 1960s, have you noticed the same thing? Or is it just my imagination?
If it matters I have lived almost my entire life in Southern California.