Monday, April 9, 2012

words we mispronounce

Tell me, who doesn't mispronounce words? Some of us—who, from a young age, read more than we heard people speak—are more prone to it than others.
I was a grad student, giving a talk on Coriolanus, in which I discussed various DIScraypanzies. There were snickers. Mostly male snickers since this memory dates back a few years when males way outnumbered females in graduate courses. The professor (also male) finally corrected my pronunciation. DisCREPancies. Ah.
I also called kitchen gadgets YOUT’nsles. I was married, divorced, and married again before I discovered everyone else called them uTENsils.
I had an argument with a once-upon-a-time friend who believed himself a connoisseur of all things related to the English language. I had just said succour which I pronounced as SUCK-or. He sputtered at the travesty I’d made of a word which he claimed was supposed to be pronounced SOO-kor. There wasn’t a dictionary at hand to check. He would have sputtered yet again at the suggestion we needed to check anything which he believed true. Just think, he shrilled, how stupid it sounds: he gave her suck-her! Maybe it sounds funny now, but when the word came into the language, maybe everyone didn't have cunnilingus on the brain as he did. Later, when I got home, I looked up succour and discovered that yeah, it is pronounced suck-her. No alternate pronunciations listed.
More recently I heard a friend with a background in teaching and editing say the word detritus with the middle syllable pronounced like trite. I’d always aligned my detritus with detrimental. Short “i”. Shortly after, when I saw two other friends, both writers with published books, I asked how they would pronounce this word which I wrote on a piece of paper. Both looked. Neither dared. One hesitated and said she used the word when writing but had never had to say it out loud. I believe that’s often the case with writers. We have larger vocabularies than we have mouths.
Another word I’ve recently discovered I mispronounce is lichen. It supposed to sound the same as the verb liken. My version makes lichen sound like a close cousin of lychees.
So should I keep my mouth closed when I’m out in public? I think that people who believe they never mispronounce words are the deluded ones.
Here's some St. Lawrence River lichen:


  1. This is a tremendous relief to read. Chaos and subtle are the words that baffled me for so very long, as illustrated by #4 here:

    Quickly, if you don't want to copy and paste the link (blogger is not accepted my HTML attempt to make it a live link) I thought 'subtle' was pronounced how it looks, b and all, and 'chaos' was like a choo-choo train: CHA-os.

  2. I think that in my head I still pronounce the b in subtle. By some happy accident, it comes out of my mouth the right way.

  3. I always thought it was DET-rih-tus, but had never said or heard it. I used it in my book, and before a reading once in which I planned to read a passage including the word, I looked it up just to be sure, and was shocked that my dictionary said it ought to be de-TRY-tus. It still sounds wrong to me.

  4. How do you say inchoate? I see it written but nobody uses it, at least not in the company I incoat? in-co-ate? O wait. I'm on the computer. I can totally check...It is the last one- in-co-ate. The online dictionary man seems very cheerful when he says it too...

  5. Yes! The online dictionary pronunciation guides are most helpful. But first, you have to know that you're mispronouncing a word, which I often only discover after I hear someone say a word differently from what I expected.

  6. What about that recent novel that I read called the Lacuna. It was always la-coo-na to me until I heard miss Kingsolver in an interview saying la-cue-na and that she lived in the Appa-latch-in mountains. My gosh, is nothing sacred?

  7. Ha! Yes, a relief to know I'm not alone in my bilingual English. Reading words and saying them out loud... different languages sometimes!

    (You realize I'm now going to start in-my-head pronouncing that suBtle B...) Power of PURR-sway-jun... or, no, wait... purr-SWAY-jun??