It is Pronounced!

I started to write a post on this subject…then realized I’d already done so, years ago.  So here it is again.  (Hmmm.  I may be running out of things to talk about.  Nah.  Never happen.)

Before I write one further sentence, let me state, unequivocally, that I mispronounce many words. While I don’t make some of the most egregious errors of Midwestern pronunciation – I do not “warsh” my clothes, nor return books to the “liberry”; I do not “ax” a question, nor shop for “aaigs” at the “groshery” – there are still several words that I’ve spoken incorrectly for so many years that the mispronunciation now sounds valid to my ears.  I catch myself in two of the worst quite often, uttering the Midwestern “jis” rather than just, or “tuh” instead of too.

But there are common mispronunciations that grate on me almost daily. For this, I blame Mrs. Dryer, my excellent third-grade teacher.  It was she who told our whole class that if we mispronounced the word “mischievous” in her classroom (saying it as “miss chee vee ous” rather than the correct “miss cheh vus”), we would receive an “F” for the whole day.  Never mind that this word has been so consistently mispronounced that the incorrect pronunciation now appears as a secondary pronunciation in dictionaries; in Mrs. Dryer’s classroom, one said the word correctly or suffered the consequences.  Mrs. Dryer’s classroom rule set me up for a lifetime of picky pronunciation.

As an adult, I hid my face in embarrassment when an executive at a meeting I attended spoke of the “physical year” rather than fiscal year.  As a teenager, I sat cringing in my classroom seat while my American History teacher spoke of “Eyetalians”, or our Assistant Principal made his daily intercom announcement about our school “athaletes”. (I recently heard that same mispronunciation made by TV news commentator and I wanted to reach into the screen and rip the speaker’s tonsils out of his throat.  Now I mute the set each time that commentator is on air.)

I generally adore British accents, but I find myself bothered by the British habit of adding a faint but noticeable “r” at the end of any word ending in a soft “a”. I hear them mangle Asia into “Azhar” and transmute Amanda or Anna into “Amandar” and “Annar”.  “There is no ‘r’ at the end!” I want to shout at the speakers on the TV screen.  But I find myself just as furious when Americans end these same words in “uh” rather than ah.  “It’s an ‘a’,” I insist to the No One who is listening.  “It’s pronounced with a soft ‘a’!”

But I save my most impressive rants for announcers and newscasters on TV and radio. Hear My Declaration, O Ye Who Are On the Air: If one has made the decision to go into a field which requires public speaking, then Diction Is An Essential Skill.  So I rave at the car radio or the flatscreen when an announcer says “uh-mediately” rather than ih-meditately, or “uhh-fective” instead of eh-fective”.  I bury my face in my hands when they slur sort of  into “sorta”, or, just as I do, utter the word “tuh” instead of to.  I wince with shame when I hear them speak of “Queen Uuh-lizabeth”.

Nevertheless, having been embarrassingly called out myself on an occasional mispronunciation, when faced with an acquaintance who has mispronounced a word, I have learned to soft-pedal my corrections to avoid humiliating them—yes, even to the boyfriend whom I was almost done with. Having heard him, for the umpteenth time, suggest we dine at the “buffit”, I said mildly, making sure that there was no one else to hear me correct him, “Is that how the word is pronounced, are you sure? Because I’ve always heard it pronounced buffay.”  “Don’t be dumb!” he retorted.  “It’s not Jimmy Buffay, is it?!”  So I shrugged and said not a word as he suggested to the couple we were meeting that we have dinner that evening at the “buffit”.

And I didn’t say a word, either, when they realized he was serious, began to chuckle, and corrected him.

Well, I did smile. A little.  Evilly.

If this essay made you smile, you might also enjoy “Mispronounced, Revisited”, which you can locate by scrolling to the archives, below.  It was published October 19, 2018.

Mispronounced, Revisited

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!