As I have mentioned before in these blog posts, there are words that I have mispronounced for so many years that the mispronunciation now sounds correct to my ears. One of these is the word piscine—which is not, as made famous in one movie, generally pronounced “Pissing”, but “PIE Seen”. However, when I first read the word, I accidentally placed the accent on the second syllable: “Pie SEEN”. To this day, that is how I read the word. It rarely comes up in conversation, so I don’t generally have to worry about mispronouncing it in public. But then, anything would be better than pronouncing the word as “pissing”.
But another word, topiary, is a pronunciation Waterloo for me. Again, since I first read the word rather than heard it in conversation, I mispronounced it, reading it as “Tow PIE Uh Ree”. When I heard the word pronounced correctly for the first time, TOW Pee Airy”, though, I thought to myself, “Well, that just sounds stupid.” And I have embarrassingly mispronounced it, and been corrected, in conversation a few times. Still, reading the word topiary, I hold on to my personal pronunciation. It just sounds right to me.
Another stumbling block for me is the word plebian. Perhaps due to my childhood lessons in sounding out unfamiliar words, it appeared to me that this word should be pronounced “PLEE Bee An”, not “PLIH Bee An”. Fortunately, it is one word which I can usually speak correctly, even if in my own head I hear it differently.
But there are words which I intentionally mispronounce, such as the name of the planet Uranus. In the English language, there is simply no good pronunciation for this the name of this poor, benighted planet. It either comes out sounding like “Your Anus” or “Urine Us”, both equally awful. So I pronounce it “You RAN Us”. It is quite wrong—and much more pleasing to the ear. Correctness be damned. And while I’m on the subject of words for outer space, I have found no fewer than five different pronunciations listed on-line for the name Betelgeuse. So, once again, despite the popular movie pronunciation, Beetle Juice, I absolutely refuse to pronounce the word that way! It’s atrocious. Instead, I lean toward the pronunciation, “Beh Tell Jezh.” Far more pleasing.
Other words can rattle me simply because of growing up using local pronunciations, such as the ignorant Hoosier tendency to call the popular breakfast food an “Aig” rather than an “Ehg.” It took me years to train myself out of that slip of the tongue. Coupon will always catch me out, though. It will forever be to me a “KEW Pon”, not a “KOO Pon.”
But the mispronunciations of some words are so common that the correct pronunciation sounds strange to most ears; witness, the word which, as I sat in Mrs. Dryer’s third grade classroom, set me up for this lifetime of persnickety pronunciation habits: mischievous. MISS Cheh Vus, not Miss CHEE Vi Us! The word is so commonly mispronounced that I have been called out on a few occasions when using the correct pronunciation, and (in great irritation, I might add), debated the question with my would-be tutors. Which begs the question: If a mispronunciation is that common, is it, in fact, simply a separate way of saying the word? Language, after all, is fluid; it ebbs and flows and changes. New words are added; others fall out of use. The word gif did not exist throughout most of my lifetime, and, despite the intentions of its creator, I will always pronounce it with a hard “g”, as gif, not the peanut-buttery jif.
Which brings to mind a TV documentary that I once watched far back in the 1970s. The computer era not yet having arrived, countries such as Iceland experienced both isolation and individuality. The show’s narrator was extolling the fact that Icelandic people still spoke the language, unchanged, of their distant forebears, the Viking people. As the narrator spoke, the video ran, displaying an Icelandic TV news announcer, reading the latest stories to his listeners in their ancient tongue.
This sent me into gales laughter. Exactly what, I wondered, was the ancient Viking word for “television”?!
The simple truth is that none of us who have either been raised speaking or who have later acquired the English language speak the language as it once existed—the English of Chaucer’s day. Within a world of instant communication, language is changing even faster than it did in the hundreds of years that divide us from notable writers such as Shakespeare. Some of those changes in both pronunciation and usage will be sensible. The language we read and speak will continue to evolve.
But I absolutely, positively, totally refuse to bend even an inch on the pronunciation of mischievous!