Writers Talk About Writing
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.
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!