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.