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Word Quirks: Getting Misled by Mispronunciation

If you click over to my profile page, you'll see a lie. I've claimed that dapple is my favorite word, but that's not true. I had to default to dapple — possibly my second-favorite word — because my real favorite word is chaos, which isn't available.

OK, actually, chaos is available, if you mean chaos pronounced like KAY-os. But my chaos, the one pronounced, cha-OOOS, isn't there.

You see, I learned to read when I was two, thanks to my grandmother, and for a long time, I read words before I heard them aloud. Chaos was one of those words. Although I quickly learned, through my parents' gentle correction, the proper pronunciation, I still think cha-OOOS in the first moment of seeing the word, before correcting myself.

It's one of my word quirks, a word I've gotten wrong for years. I had a lot of fun asking my social media community, friends and family about their word quirks, specifically words they've misread (and, thus, mispronounced) just like I did with chaos. Everyone seems to have one or two — maybe more — of these. I found that they can sometimes be quite revealing. For example, my 37-year insistence on cha-OOS reveals several truths about me — I'm stubborn, I pick up a lot of information from reading, and I don't like change!

Does Anyone Get These Right?

The winner, by a large margin, for most mispronounced word? The entirely apropos misled. At least ten people mentioned it, most saying that they read it as MY-zled, assuming that there was another word, spelled mislead, which meant what misled actually means. Of course, there is a mislead, but it's the present or future tense of…wait, are you confused yet? Anyway, misled is our winner, which I found particularly interesting since it's not very long, nor particularly foreign. (In fact, one term for such mispronounced words is misle.)

The runners-up, you see, were definitely from another language. In fact, we can thank France for providing us with incredibly misleading words for many, many generations. Second place after misled for most often mispronounced amongst those polled goes to epitome, with a variety of (wrong) pronunciations: epp-tome, EP-i-tome, epi-e-TOOOOM. Third place goes to segue, which several people reported as pronouncing seeg for years. A friend of mine from grad school noted that she didn't realize that seeg was segue until attempting to type segueway repeatedly and setting off her spell-check. The misleading debris (said deb-ris) and melancholy (mell-AN-cho-lee) appeared more than once, too.

Perhaps because the incorrect pronunciation is so, um, memorable, I was told by several people that the word hors d'oeuvres is their most embarrassing mispronunciation. One woman tried horse day oo vrays, which probably just elicited chuckles. But like a few others, I have a specific childhood memory of asking my mother where she'd like me to put the WHORES devores. So much for sophistication — she laughed until she cried!

There are a bunch of one-offs in this category too. I can understand the friend who thought ennui is en-yoo-eye, especially since I often try to avoid saying that word aloud myself. But the person who read chateau as chat-ee-wah has won my heart forever — that's awesomely, completely wrong!

By the way, it isn't just French that's confusing. Two people thought that albeit — a word derived from Middle English — was all-BITE, or ALL-bite. The justification? “That's how it would be said in German,” both claimed. Oh, and you remember Hermione from the Harry Potter books? Well, apparently no one in America knew how to pronounce her name correctly until the movies came out.

Silent Scoundrels and Extra Letters

While no other single word felled as many folks as those above, silent letters seem to have tripped up a lot of us, especially those who, like me, read before we had heard the words we were reading aloud. One of my former students says that she insists that subtle is SUB-Tle. Another friend was in college before finding out that the “T” in apostle is silent. Herb (with the “H” pronounced) and debt (deb-tuh) were mentioned. I wonder if deb-tuh is similar to deb-ris, as mentioned above.

Special mention must be made of the friend whose college room-mate would choose bad times to announce that she smelled marh-J-wanna on their floor. I suppose it was some comfort that the RAs probably couldn't understand what she was talking about. I'm also very fond of the report that sigh was misread as sig-hee for many, many years. Really? Sigh?

No Real Reason. Just Wrong.

Sometimes, it seems, there's no real reason why we mispronounce a word, and no group to join in and back us up on why we were off. Among my other gems is the word ensconced, which I have to remind myself to pronounce correctly. I tend to start with an emphasis on the first syllable, making it into something like IN-scooons-ed. Surprisingly, people seem to have no idea what I mean when I say it that way.

My friend told me about a similar experience, although he was much quicker to abandon his mispronunciation. While reading Lolita in college, he was in the throes of intellectual fervor over the exotic words Nabokov used. He came upon what he was sure was a complex French word, and raced to his French-to-English dictionary to look up laprug. Turns out, it's just, um, a rug for your lap. He didn't report making use of LaPruuuug these days.

Another friend is a native of Venezuela, and mentioned the time that she decided to teach her ESL students a new English word to describe the brisk and chilly weather outside. She ended up sending 8 kids home proclaiming to their parents that it's nipply outside instead of nippy. Whoops. Although, in fairness, it might have been. I like to think that some of those kids still say it that way.

Hermione isn't the only name to be messed up, but even my friend who confessed to this one is ashamed: she can't get Melanie right on the first try. It comes out MeLANEee. Someone else has been practicing Beethoven before saying it for years, so it doesn't come out as BEEthaaavin. Oh, and you remember the composer, VOGGner? Someone else thought this was an entirely different person from Wagner.

A person who worked for the Annals of Medicine called it the Anals for years. Another friend avoids saying buried for fear of getting it wrong. A husband and wife argue over ruins — is it runes or roo-ins? I even have friends who mentioned that they always misread biopic and miniseries (BIapic and minizurries that is).

And I've saved my favorites for last: a friend mentioned that she caught her kids giggling over the word Nookis. It took a while to figure it out — they got it from promos for CBS's show “NCIS.” That one had me laughing for quite a while, as did the friend who mentioned that she thought, for years, that there was Europe, the place that everyone talked about, and also Your-rope-ee, a place that she read about, but, oddly, never heard anyone mention.

Being Gentle

I wrote at the beginning that we can a lot about ourselves from our use of these words, and it's true: the people who responded to my request for stories of mispronunciations were mostly early readers who still read widely. They can laugh at themselves, which is always a nice quality. And they seem to carry a sense of wonder through the world that I find quite charming — I think it's nice to believe that there's a Your-rope-ee out there on our globe somewhere, even if you've never heard anyone else mention it.

But what I most take away from this survey is a sense that I've probably been too hard on myself for years, as I mangled my way through ethereal and misogyny. Words are hard! We all seem to be getting them wrong from time to time. So perhaps we should be gentler to ourselves, and to others, when we mess them up? No one is perfect, and laughing at our language mishaps is a way of showing the beautiful flexibility of words. What are your word quirks? A good airing of them can make everyone feel better!


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An award-winning playwright and former contributor to the Visual Thesaurus Teachers at Work department, Shannon Reed is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Pittsburgh, where she also teaches. Read more about her work at shannonreed.org. Click here to read more articles by Shannon Reed.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday December 18th 2013, 2:21 AM
Comment by: David D.
When a kid, I read and read and read, but did not hear the words aloud. I even looked some up in a dictionary and got the meaning and still not the pronunciation. Segue defeated me utterly, but my favorite was how my sister said "ped-I-strain-ean" for pedestrian. Now I am an old man and still read a lot and am in a group that meets once a week and we read aloud in round-robin fashion. I am still running into words that I pronounce incorrectly. I accept the graceful corrections I am offered and smile remembering the free reading for the story while sitting in a tree in the summer or in a barn in the winter. I love words. I love to use them well. I love to say them properly, but I still love most of all, the meanings conveyed, the stories, the vicarious lives I lived, made real by many words that I could not say aloud without generating guffaws.
Wednesday December 18th 2013, 5:52 AM
Comment by: Nick Shepherd (London United Kingdom)
Loved your article.

When I was a kid we called pre-meal snacks "horse's doofers". And I was very far from being a kid when I learned that "mistrial" was not pronounced MISTReeal, and it wasn't a French wind, but something going wrong in a courtroom.

By the way, in London we DO pronounce the H in "herb". And I live a few blocks from AmHurst Road.
Wednesday December 18th 2013, 6:10 AM
Comment by: William H. (Severn, MD)
After 20 years wearing the uniform of the United States Navy, I always read uninformed as uniformed.
Wednesday December 18th 2013, 7:06 AM
Comment by: Chandru S. (Chaska, MN)
try pronouncing lieutenant and lingerie. still dont know how they get their pronunciations!any silent letter can be a killer when it comes to it for that matter. each one has the privilege of calling it as he sees it i suppose!
Wednesday December 18th 2013, 7:35 AM
Comment by: Noel B.
In primary (Gr 3) I read misled as missld. My mother recalled being laughed at (also in primary school) for reading tongue as tong-yew...
Wednesday December 18th 2013, 8:02 AM
Comment by: Jeffrey W. (Ann Arbor, MI)
Although almost 60, I still have to stop myself from saying the "w" in sword.
Wednesday December 18th 2013, 9:21 AM
Comment by: SJ J. (Washington, DC)
Have a friend who admits to pronouncing gazebo as "gays bow"
Wednesday December 18th 2013, 9:26 AM
Comment by: Juan Jose Hartlohner (Madrid Spain)
Shannon,
It seems to me, that your favorite word is the original chaos, the Greek one: Khaos (pronounced Ka-OOOS). The gaping void. The abyss, that gapes wide open, vast and empty. The primeval emptiness of the Universe, begetter of Erebus and Nyx. The Khaos who opposes Kosmos, the ordered Universe.

The very rotund "Ka-OOOS", as is pronounced in most languages from Spanish to German.

It baffles me, why English opted to pronounce it KAY-os, being so obvious that it is total "Ka-OOOS".
Wednesday December 18th 2013, 9:38 AM
Comment by: Juan Jose Hartlohner (Madrid Spain)
Shannon,
As to your official favorite word: "dapple", I guess it is more the adj. "dappled", than the noun or verb.
Dappled, with its chiaroscuros, its ambiguity and flitting shadows. Its shades and sunshines. The polarized sunlight of late afternoons. The foliage. The moonlight glinting through the rain shower.
Wednesday December 18th 2013, 10:04 AM
Comment by: BlakeT
I recall Archie Bunker's pronunciation of hors d'oeuvres: horse d'ovaries.
Wednesday December 18th 2013, 10:09 AM
Comment by: Jacqueline M. (Ottawa Canada)
I too read a lot when I was young and (subconsciously) mispronounced the word "chagrin". I was therefore surprised one day when a friend said, "Much to my chagrin ...". I understood the meaning from context, but had always thought of it as being pronounced char (accented and pronounced as the beginning of "charge" followed by "gin" like the liquor.

Another of my 'Mondegreens" was the start of the American national anthem. I thought they were talking about a lighthouse named Donserly.

Jackie MacDonald (Ottawa Canada)
Wednesday December 18th 2013, 11:24 AM
Comment by: Julie C
I always thought "biopic" was pronounced "bye-OP-ick" when I learned, sadly, it is "BYE-oh-pick." And I will forever say "misled" as "mizzled." Thanks for a great column!
Wednesday December 18th 2013, 12:06 PM
Comment by: David D.
Boy-o-boy, Shannon, you seem to have struck a responsive item with this piece. It is interesting and something of a relief to find so many people with similar experiences. The responses are great fun and hint at a vast reservoir of butchered pronunciations.
Wednesday December 18th 2013, 3:48 PM
Comment by: Jeffry F.
I remember first coming upon the ginger-haired branch of the great apes, the “Orange Ewe Tans� (Orangutans).
Wednesday December 18th 2013, 4:16 PM
Comment by: marc E. (Pacific Palisades, CA)
Very early in their lives, I taught our children the correct pronunciation of "sherbet" (as in "it's a sure bet") opposed to the "Sure, Bert" so often used by the overwhelming majority of speakers. Having been the inattentive, embarrassed high school student known for coining the word "met-hinks" as I read aloud a Shakespearean passage in English class, I became overly sensitive to mispronunciations.
Wednesday December 18th 2013, 5:03 PM
Comment by: Gregg R.
Well, Penelope was always Penny-lope to me, and Greek names continue to vex me to this day. And when I was a kid, I was puzzled when an Amerindian chief in the comic I was reading came down with something I pronounced as a "stoam-a-CHA-chee". Stomachache. Well, it sounded Indian.

You can tel a chemist by the way he pronounces "unionized." The chemist puts the accent on the first I.
Wednesday December 18th 2013, 7:09 PM
Comment by: Shannon R. (Brooklyn, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
These are great! Thanks for sharing, all!
Saturday December 21st 2013, 4:28 PM
Comment by: Will Stott
Dear Shannon,
Great article! I was delighted to see that someone else (Jeffrey W, from Ann Arbor) wants to pronounce the W in "sword"! I still recall - 45 years later - insisting, to my mother, that The Once and Future King's protagonist pulled a sWord from the stone! I wonder why; could it be that he was called Wart?
You've touched on something that is really quite interesting; a kind of phenomenology of language, or literacy. Mispronounced words offer a strangely intimate perspective on our biography. Fascinating.
Thank you!
Will
Sunday December 22nd 2013, 4:02 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
A good read! I tried to look up biopic; VT doesn't think it's a word. Ever helpful, it suggested 27 words that it thought I might be trying to say. The first few words were reasonable guesses (biotic, bionic), but eventually VT became rather flustered and desperate and included big wig, biped, phobic, pipit and typic. Now I'm going to look up pipit ... these little detours are part of the fun of VT!

The Happy Quibbler
Monday December 23rd 2013, 3:48 PM
Comment by: Lynn C.
I thought I was the only one who back-formed Misle. I even used it a couple of times, yelling at my little brother to stop misling (myzling) me. Now I am at peace.
Tuesday December 24th 2013, 12:16 PM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I got the following list by asking around:

albeit
awry
banal
desultory
epitome
faux
indict/indictment
seconded

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