29 June 2019

Am I Saying It Right?

by John M. Floyd

A couple of months ago I posted a column here at SleuthSayers about a book I'd discovered called Dreyer's English, written by Random House executive Benjamin Dreyer. That book offered what I thought were great tips on literary style, with sections on how to use, capitalize, and spell certain difficult words. As a stylebook, what it of course didn't offer was advice on how to pronounce those words. But . . . I have since discovered some other resources, including a bunch of YouTube videos and a delightful book by Ross Petras and Kathryn Petras called You're Saying It Wrong. And I found that I was indeed often saying things wrong. (Which was nothing new, for me; I can remember when I first learned that calliope and Penelope weren't KALLY-ope and PENNA-lope. (I think that was last week.)

Anyhow, the following are some examples I've stumbled onto, of how to pronounce--and how not to pronounce--certain words. I've even included a few people and place names. I hope you might be as surprised as I was, by some of these:

forte -- It's pronounced FORT. Not fore-TAY.

pathos -- PAY-thoss. Not PATH-oss.

comptroller -- con-TROLL-er. Not COMP-troll-er.

Porsche -- POR-sha. Not PORSH.

dais -- DAY-is or DYE-is.

Gillian Flynn -- GILL-ee-an (with a hard G). Not JILL-ee-an.

J. K. Rowling -- ROE-ling (rhymes with GO). Not ROW-ling (rhymes with COW).

Jodi Picoult -- PEE-ko.

O'Neil De Noux -- da-NEW.

Leigh Lundin -- lun-DEEN. Not LUN-din.

Brendan Dubois -- du-BOYS. Not du-BWAH.

Herschel Cozine -- KO-zyne. Not KO-zeen.

Andrew Gulli -- GOO-lee. Not GULL-ee.

Dr. Seuss -- SOYSS (rhymes with voice). Not SOOS.

often -- AWF-un. Not AWF-tun.

segue -- SEG-way.

banal -- ba-NAL. Not BAY-nul.

kibosh -- KYE-bosh. Not ki-BOSH.

nuclear -- NOOK-lee-ur. Not NOOK-yew-ler.

chimera -- ky-MEE-rah. Not ka-MERR-ah.

alumnae -- ah-LUM-nee. Not ah-LUM-nay.

Celtic -- KEL-tick. (Unless it's a Boston basketball team.)

Hermes -- AIR-mez.

Christian Lacroix -- luh-KWAH.

Yves Saint-Laurent -- eev sahn-LOR-un.

espresso -- ess-PRESS-o. Not ex-PRESS-o.

salmon -- SAM-un. Not SAL-mun. (This one I knew.)

almond -- AH-mund. Not AHL-mund. (This one I didn't.)

electoral -- e-LECK-toe-ral. Not e-leck-TOE-ral.

Pete Buttigieg -- BOOT-ah-judge.

lambast -- lam-BAYSTE. Not lam-BAST.

hegemony -- heh-JEM-ah-nee. (As in hegemony cricket.)

Seamus -- SHAY-mus.

Siobhan -- shih-VAWN.

biegnet -- ben-YAY.

oeuvre -- OOV-ruh.

Charlize Theron -- THERE-in.

Gal Godot -- gah-DOTE. Not gah-DOE or gah-DOT.

Jake Gyllenhaal -- yee-len-HAY-la.

John Huston -- HEWS-tun, Not HUSS-ton.

Houston Street, in NYC -- HOUSE-tun. Not HEWS-tun.

Qatar -- GUT-tar.

Oaxaca -- wa-HAH-ka.

Cairo, Illinois -- KAY-ro. Not KYE-ro.

Versailles, Kentucky -- ver-SAYLES. Not ver-SYE.

Louisville, Kentucky -- LOO-ah-vul. Certainly not LEWIS-vul.

Kissimmee, Florida -- ka-SIMM-ee. Not KISS-ah-mee.

Lake Tohopekaliga, Florida -- lake TO-ho. (According to locals, the pekaliga is silent.)

Peabody, Massachusetts -- PEE-buh-dee (Almost like puberty.)

Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan -- soo saint ma-REE.

Pierre, South Dakota -- PEER. Not pee-EHR.

Terre Haute, Indiana -- terra-HOTE.

Biloxi, Mississippi -- ba-LUCK-see. Not ba-LOCK-see.

Arkansas River -- ar-KAN-sas in Kansas, AR-kan-saw in Arkansas and Oklahoma.

Pago Pago -- PANG-o PANG-o.

Curacao -- KURE-ah-sow. (What the vet does for a female pig.)

St. Lucia -- LOO-shah.

Worcester -- WOO-ster.

Leicester -- LESS-ter.

boatswain -- BOSS-un.

forecastle -- FOKE-sul.

gunwale -- GUNN-el.

quay -- KEE.

Nguyen -- WEN.

Joaquin -- wah-KEEN.

gyro -- YEE-ro. Not JYE-ro.

plethora -- PLETH-o-rah. Not pleh-THOR-ah.

To tell you the truth, the words I most want to pronounce correctly are the people and place names. I can't remember ever using "oeuvre" or "plethora" in a conversation, and I hope I never feel the urge to. But if I ever meet Nikolaj Coster-Waldau or win a trip to Phuket, Thailand, I'd rather not say something that makes me sound like an idiot (or gets me arrested).

NOTE 1: From Leigh Lundin: The THERE-in for Charlize Theron was suggested by her agent, but the TH is actually a hard T, as in Thomas. The name is probably Afrikaans, and would be pronounced something like T'rawn, where the first vowel is barely heard and the H not at all.  (Thanks, Leigh! My reply: It's almost like Game of Therons, but not quite. THERE-in lies the difference.)

NOTE 2: The pronunciation shown above for Jake Gyllenhaal's name is the way he says it, but almost everyone else--even interviewers--seems to say GILL-en-hall. The burden folks with uncommon names have to bear.

What are some of your most difficult words to pronounce? What are some that you hate to hear others mispronounce? Do you have one of those names that make strangers blink when they see it written, or that could be said several different ways? (My wife's sister married a Schnegelberger, so this is familiar ground.) And how many of you live in or near cities or towns or counties with names that might not be pronounced the way they look? Inquiring travelers want to know.

(Any time this subject comes up, I'm reminded of a joke I heard about a lady who stopped for an ice-cream cone in my hometown of Kosciusko, Mississippi. "I'm not from here," she told the girl behind the counter. "How do you pronounce the name of this place?" The girl, speaking very slowly and carefully, said, "Dai-ree Queen." And yes, I know, you've probably heard that one before.)

Quick note: In your future endeavors, may all your references to creative techniques like onomatopoeia and synecdoche and chiaroscuro be written and never spoken. It's just easier that way. And let's not even think about medical terms.

I'll leave you with one of my own poems on this topic, which is (unfortunately) a good indicator of my literary talents. It's called "Incontinent Consonants":

I never seem to understand
Our neighbors overseas;
A city named Vrnjyzkryleszka
Makes me say. "Oh, please."

The problem is pronunciation,
Not mere nouns and verbs;
Hawaiians should delete some vowels
And give them to the Serbs.

(Eat your heart out, Carl Sandburg.)

See you next Saturday.


  1. I was looking forward to a little light reading and instead was shown I've been mispronouncing just about everything all these years. Thanks a lot John! "Dr Seuss" and "often" were the biggest surprises for me. Liked your poem!

  2. Good post. Learned some stuff.

    When I was in boot camp, every instructor mispronounced my name on purpose. The one they did not even try to pronounce was a guy named De la Quibedoux. They just called him 'alphabets'.

  3. Larry, some of this stuff is pretty optional. I didn't include one of my real pet peeves because opinions are almost equal on both sides of the argument: short-lived (rhymes with GIVE) and short-lived (rhymes with HIVE). To me, the second one is better, because if something has a short life, it's short-LIVED (long i). But the ones I've listed show the preferred pronunciations.

    O'Neil, maybe it's the X that threw everybody off. Was Quibedoux KIB-ee-doo or KIB-ee-doe?

  4. I grew up near Newark NJ which is supposed to be pronounced NEW-urk, but is often reduced to Nurk. Newark Delaware, on the other hand is pronounced New ark.

    I now live an hour away from Sequim, WA which is pronounced Skwim, and Puyallup which is pronounced Pyoo-OLL-up. The guy who gave it that name later apologized in writing. (He was Ezra Meeker, by the way, a fascinating man. He convinced the government to create the national trail system, among other things.)

  5. Oh, and seeing espresso on the list reminded me of this. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qmVnr7rsWrE

  6. Hey Rob. Yep, Newark was always one syllable when I used to fly in and out of there. a LOT, with IBM. And I actually heard somebody on the news say spo-KAYNE the other day, referring to one of your Washington cities. Good thing he didn't say it in the same room with the guy in your YouTube video!!

  7. Love that last poem! IN Canada, we get a kick out of how French names in the US are pronounced differently from our French-Canadian way. My dad was English, (and one of those upper drawer types) and he would always be correcting people re: It's Sin Jin, not St. James, or Riven, not Ruthven.

  8. Thanks, Melodie! I hope you never hear the way some of us southerners pronounce those French names. By the way, do watch that YouTube video Rob mentioned. That guy in the video's approach to mispronunciation is tempting, sometimes.

    By the way, fair warning: The publisher of my short-story collections will release a book next spring containing 300 of my previously-published poems. They aren't deep or profound or life-changing, but I hope they'll make you laugh.

  9. Great topic. I'm glad to see I pronounce most of these correctly, some surprised me.

    Iselin, NJ is pronounced Is lin, not Ice lin which I hear on NYC news. Usually the reporters talk about Metro Park train station and skip the Iselin all together.

  10. John, slightly off topic. When I fly into Newark Airport to visit relatives the flight attendant will sometimes say over the PA "Welcome to New York" and I shout "It's NEW JERSEY!" What are they going to do? Throw me off?

  11. Hey Pat -- Thanks for that. Yes, you'd expect newscasters from anywhere nearby to be able to pronounce those town names correctly. We have one here in Jackson, Mississippi, who insists on calling YAZZ-oo City YAH-zoo City. Not a big thing, but to the folks who live there, it is.

    Rob, I will listen for reports of your being thrown from the aircraft. If it's any consolation, they've been doing that for a long time. Granted, my flights into Newark were usually because I was then going into NYC, but sometimes not--sometimes I was then headed to Princeton, which is certainly New Jersey. And they still said "Welcome to New York." Whattayagonnado?

  12. Fun post, thank you. Reminds me of an incident many years ago when a U.S. Olympic skier named Picabo Street suffered an injury on the slopes and required hospitalization.

    The correct pronunciation of her first name (peek-a-boo) prompted the wry sports page headline: Picabo, ICU.


  13. WHOA, I love that one, Peter. I assure you that will be repeated.


  14. Mr. Elizabeth, who is of 100% Polish ancestry, tells me that Kościuszko means "little church" in Polish.

    His name is Bogdan Naleszkiewicz. I don't use his last name. When he was in basic training, his sergeant came up with a way to always pronounce his last name correctly ... it rhymes with "molest a bitch!"

  15. Thanks, Elizabeth -- I knew Kosciusko (the Z somehow got dropped from the town name) was Polish, but didn't know its meaning. I understand the correct pronunciation of the word is koz-SHOOSH-ko, but residents usually say kozzy-ESS-ko or just ki-ZES-ko. In emails, we usually write Kosy or just KO. it gives new TV weathercasters nightmares.

    That way to remember how to pronounce Mr. Elizabeth's name does sound like something a drill sergeant would come up with.

  16. Here's one I forgot, and was questioned about a few minutes ago, offline. O'Neil, if you read this (or anyone else who knows), how do New Orleans folks pronounce Chartres Street?

  17. I don't know about Chartres in New Orleans, but I know that in Atlanta, Houston Street is pronounced HOUSE-ton, and Ponce de Leon is pronounced Pons-duh-Leon. And the small town of Sinai, SD is pronounced SIGN-EE-EYE (don't ask me where it got the "ee" from, no one knows).

  18. Great post, John. Loved the poem, too. I'm wondering if you can remember all those words you listed or have to go back to check once in a while. I know I can't remember them all!

  19. Eve, I love the Sinai pronunciation. I did not know that Houston Street in Atlanta is said the same way as the one in NYC--I figured that was a one-of-a-kind occurrence. Not that it matters, but we have a Louisville here in Mississippi that's pronounced LEWIS-ville, with the S intact, which is sort of an advantage--when I hear somebody say it that way, I know it's the one here and not the one in Kentucky.

    I had never heard about the difference in the way Pierre, SD, is pronounced until I met a lady who grew up there. She said it was good way to immediately know who's local and who's not.

    These discussions are always a lot of fun.

  20. Hey Jan! -- No, I canNOT remember all these words. I think the pronunciations that surprised me I will remember, but--as you said--I'll have to go back and check from time to time.

    Hope you're doing well. Thanks for stopping in, here!

  21. Fun post, John. I'm amazed how many of these I actually pronounce more or less correctly.

    Growing up, I thought it was YOS-mite national park, (never figured out Yosemite Sam in the cartoons, thought they were saying something like "seventy") and it took years for me to figure out Gloucester rhymed with "Foster" and some of those other English-transplanted to New England town names.

    I became fairly good at handling names when I taught in a town with a large Polish population. They thought (incorrectly) that I was one of them.

    This from Steve LIS-koe, long "O." For years, I've explained that it's a shortened form of the Polish word for typo. Actually, 200 years ago, it was German and had two more letters.

  22. Steve, as a kid I too had the wrong pronunciation in my head for Yosemite. It never occurred to me that it might be Yo-SIM-a-tee. If that was true for Yosemite Sam, why wasn't Calamity Jane spelled Calamite? I also remembering seeing "hitherto" in a book I was reading (The Yearling, I think it was) and wondering how the hell that was pronounced. Maybe audiobooks ARE a good thing . . .

    Two of my best friends in the Air Force were named Jaszewski and Kocialski, so I found out there how difficult Polish names could be to pronounce.

    Interesting stuff. Thanks!

  23. Those are fun and educational, John. I didn't know a couple such as lambast.

    I recall being corrected about pimiento and poinsettia, 4 syllables each. I've heard some argue that pimento (1 'i') is the plant and pimiento (2 i's') is the red fruit, but it seems a fruitless distinction to me.

  24. Leigh, the pimento/pimiento distinction is news to me--and all my life I've heard folks refer to poinsettias as poinsettas, even though that's wrong. For me, I think both pimiento and poinsettia will remain three syllables instead of four, just because it sounds better (!!).

    Thank you for your additions and corrections to this column. I learned a lot from our discussions!

  25. Oops. I meant four syllables, for poinsettia, instead of five.

  26. Wow, I think I got all of those wrong.

  27. A lot of them surprised me too, Travis.


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