18 March 2023

That's Easy for You to Say

As you probably know, this blog is about mystery fiction, and while we (and mostly I) occasionally stagger off the path and into movies and TV, our usual posts here are about writing short stories and novels.

Today I'm wandering afield again: I'd like to focus not on the written word but on the spoken word. Or should I say misspoken?

I can remember when, as a kid, I thought calliope was pronounced cally-ope and Penelope was penna-lope. And I had no idea about things like coup, epitome, hitherto (hit her, too?), etc. After all, I hadn't heard those words before--I'd only read them in books. On the printed page, Sean looked like seen, Seamus looked like seemus, and God Only Knew about Siobhan. I also remember seeing the name John Huston in the credits of a movie when I was a teenager and figured his last name was pronounced Huss-ton.

Now that I have (supposedly) grown up, I still find myself confused about some pronunciations, and my more intelligent wife's not always around to correct me.

Having said all that . . . here are some perplexing names and words that have stumped me now and then, along with what I believe is the correct way to pronounce them. See what you think.

Names of writers:

  • Ayn Rand. It's not ann. It's ine, as in wine.
  • Gillian Flynn -- Not jillian. It's GILL-yan, with a hard G.
  • Annie Proulx -- Not prool. It's proo.
  • Vladimir Nabokov -- Not NAB-okov. It's na-BO-kov.
  • Roald Dahl -- Not rolled. It's ROO-all.
  • Dr. Seuss -- Not soos. It's soice, as in voice.
  • Rick Riordan -- Not REER-din. It's RYE-or-din.
  • P. G. Wodehouse -- Not wode-house. It's wood-house.
  • Jodi Picoult -- Not pee-colt or pee-cult. It's pee-ko.
  • John Le CarrĂ© -- Not la-karr. It's la-kar-RAY.
  • Brendan Dubois -- Not doo-bwah. It's doo-boys.
  • J. K. Rowling -- Not RAOWL-ing, as in howling. It's ROLL-ing, as in bowling.

Other names:

  • Andrew Carnegie -- Not CAR-na-gie. It's car-NAY-gie.
  • Martin Scorcese -- Not scar-SAZE-ee. It's scar-SEZZY.
  • Ralph Lauren -- Not lau-REN. It's LAUR-en.
  • Demi Moore -- Not Dimmy. It's di-MEE.
  • Lindsay Lohan -- Not low-hann. It's LOW-en, as in Owen.
  • Kirsten Dunst -- Not ker-sten. It's keer-sten.
  • Charlize Theron -- Not the-RONE, as in Game of Therons. It's THERE-in.
  • Saoirse Ronan -- Not source or sarce. It's ser-shah.
  • Gal Godot -- Not ga-DOE. It's ga-DOTE.

(Yes, I know--these last six are actresses. I can't think offhand of any male actors's names I have trouble pronouncing, and if I did I doubt they'd care. Also note: I'm fairly sure this is the only time you'll ever see Lindsay Lohan and Andrew Carnegie in the same list.)

U. S. cities:

  • Kissimmee, FL, isn't KISS-im-ee. It's kis-SIM-ee.
  • Wilkes-Barre, PA, isn't wilks-bar. It's WILKS-barry (some say WILKS-bare).
  • Worchester, MA, isn't WAR-chester. It's WOOS-ter.
  • La Jolla, CA, isn't la-JAH-lah. (You know this already.) It's la-HOY-ah.
  • Biloxi, MS, isn't bi-LOCK-si. It's bi-LUCK-si.
  • Des Moines, IO, isn't duh-MOINS. It's duh-MOIN. No s.
  • Islamorada, FL, isn't IZ-lamorada. It's EYE-lamorada.
  • New Orleans, LA, isn't new-or-LEENS or new-ORLEY-uns. It's new-OR-luns.
  • Spokane, WA, isn't spo-KANE. it's spo-KANN.
  • Versailles, KY, isn't ver-SIGH, as in France. It's ver-SAYLES. Seriously. 
  • Milan, TN, isn't mi-LON, as in Italy. It's MY-lin.
  • Cairo, IL, isn't KY-roe, as in Egypt. It's KAY-roe.

(I won't attempt to phonetically spell the correct pronunciation of Norfolk, VA, but here's a true-story hint: I was once told by a resident that their unofficial school cheer was "We don't smoke. We don't chew. Norfolk, Norfolk, Norfolk.")

Common words:

  • Cavalry isn't calvary.
  • Athlete isn't athalete.
  • Realtor isn't realator.
  • Triathlon isn't triathalon.
  • Sherbet isn't sherbert.
  • Espresso isn't expresso.
  • Nuclear isn't nucular.
  • Larynx isn't lair-nix. It's lair-inks.
  • Potable isn't pottable. It's pote-able.
  • Mischievous isn't mis-CHEEV-ee-us. It's MIS-chev-us.
  • Gyro isn't JYE-ro, as in gyroscope. It's YEER-o, as in hero.
  • Applicable isn't ap-PLICK-able. It's APP-lickable.
  • Electoral isn't elec-TORE-al. It's e-LECK-toral.
  • Respite isn't res-pyte. It's RESS-pit.
  • Gala isn't galla. It's GAY-la.
  • Beignet isn't ben-yet. It's ben-yay.
  • Boatswain isn't bote-swane. It's boss-un.
  • Foyer isn't foy-ay. (Even though we like sounding fancy.) It's plain old foy-er.

Full disclosure: There are some words I will happily continue to pronounce the way I want to pronounce them because I don't like the other ways, correct or not. To me it'll always be bobwire, snuck, Febyouwary, Wensdy, Dr. Soos, care-amel, pah-conns, poinsetta, pimento, surrup (not sear-up), turnament (not tour-nament), Flahridda (not Flore-idda), Nevahda (not Nevadda), dawg (not dahg), man-aze (not mayo-naze), pajommas (not pajammas), aint and uncle (not ahnt and uncle), day-ta (not datta), ee-ther (not eye-ther), nee-ther (not nye-ther), etc. 

Two more points. First, I still think the lived in short-lived should have a long i, as in deprived. (I've been lobbying a long time for that, to no avail. I mean, come on, if it's short-lived it has a short LIFE.) Second--and this isn't actually pronunciation--I don't like the word utilize, in speaking or writing. Use a perfectly good word like use instead. They mean the same thing.

Since writers are also speakers and listeners (and since this is a forum for 'em), what mispronunciations, including regionalisms, bother you the most? Please let me know in the comments below.

I think that's everything that's APP-lickable. See you in two weeks.


  1. Damn. I should know better about the pronunciation of ‘I’ in Demi and Kirsten.

    Charlize Theron’s *true* pronunciation is terone, inheriting a hard Germanic ’T’ from her Afrikaner roots (like Neanderthal with its hard T), but she’s given her blessing to the American ‘th’ pronunciation. But family and friends… hard T.

    I’m dismayed I didn’t know how to pronounce Islamorada. Now I do.

    Versailles, Indiana has the same pronunciation as its Kentucky counterpart.

    Like some other cities, Terre Haute (like Des Moines) retains much of its French pronunciation, terra HOTE.

    Peabody, Massachusetts could almost rhyme with puberty: PEE-buh-dee, where the ‘buh’ is barely pronounced.

    I expected Louisville, Kentucky to top your list, but you must have thought everyone knows by now the pronunciation isn’t Louie-ville, but loo-a-vul. I was on a flight during an emergency landing when the pilot announced we’d be landing in Lewis-ville, which worried me more than it should.

    Oh, Lake Tohopekaliga (in kis-SIM-ee, Florida) is pronounced… wait for it… Lake Toho.

    I’m glad you brought up sherbet and gyro, but damn, I’ve been mispronouncing larynx.

    We tend to lose syllables over time. One argument claims poinsettia and pimiento are the flower and fruit, while poinsetta and pimento are the corresponding plants, but that’s cheating, trying to have it both ways.

    I love that list of exceptions, many which I violate… er, validate, I mean embrace. A girlfriend used to pronounce wolf as ’wuff’. I wasn’t supposed to be charmed, but I was.

    Bobwire… oh yeah.

    1. Now THAT's a comment! Thanks, Leigh. I wish I'd talked to you before posting this! As for Islamorada, I suppose the long i makes sense, since it's an isle, sort of. And you and I had spoken before about the name Theron--interesting!

      I can't help remembering an old joke: You ask someone, How do you pronounce the capital of Kentucky? Folks always say LOU-a-vul, very carefully. Then you say The capital of Kentucky is pronounced FRANK-fort.

      This is fun stuff.

  2. Newark is useful for this discussion. The New Jersey city is pronounced NEW-urk. The Delaware city is pronounced new-ark. (Not sure if one of the Delaware syllables should have emphasis.)

    1. Ha! I didn't know about the Delaware city, Barb. Never make assumptions about these pronunciations, right? We have a Louisville in Mississippi that's pronounced Lewisville, which throws some folks a curve as well.

      I love finding out about that kind of thing. An old friend once told me that she lived in South Dakota, and that folks there can recognize out-of-staters by the way they pronounce Pierre. She said it's locally pronounced Peer, with only one syllable.

      Thanks as always!

  3. Yes to all of this, John, especially Penna-lope and Calli-ope (I guess we both read mythology growning up). But until someone connected the cartoon character with the park, I always thought the name they have in common was YOSE-mite, too.

    1. Steve, I too was watching those Bugs Bunny cartoons long before connected Sam with the park. How're you gonna know if you'd never heard the word spoken--or didn't realize what you were hearing when you did? I can actually remember thinking, when I finally learned the correct pronunciation for Penelope, why in the world didn't they just spell it Penellapy?

      Ah, the wonders of the English language.

    2. A real puzzle. It's Greek to me...

  4. A few years ago I was asked to preside on a Bouchercon panel and Brendan Dubois was one of the panelists. I was in mortal fear that he would show up at the last minute thereby depriving me of the opportunity to ask him whether it was "doo-bwah" or "du-boys." Luckily Brendan, always the professional, showed up early thereby assuring that I could get through introductions without committing a faux pas (which is NOT a "fox pass"!)

    1. It's NOT a fox pass??

      Dale, I once asked Brendan, face-to-face, about his last name. It was in the hotel lobby at, I think, the Raleigh Bouchercon, and I too was worried that someone might come up to us as we were talking and I'd need to make an introduction. But I've also found that most folks with difficult-to-pronounce names rarely take offense when that happens.

      BTW, if you've never read Brendan's book about his experience as a Jeopardy contestant (and champion), you should. It's a good one.

  5. And Pierre, South Dakota, is pronounced peer as in peer of the realm.

    1. Hey Eve. Absolutely! Nothing but aristocrats there, I suspect.

      I've always remembered what I was told, about pronouncing Pierre. To me, it would've been two syllables.

  6. Husband's name is Bogdan Naleszkiewicz. 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!" My mother actually thought it was funny.

    I used to live in New Jersey down the road from Alannic City.

    I met Ayn Rand one time at a book signing when I was about 12 or 13.

    1. This is Elizabeth, right?--You told me that Naleszkiewicz story once. I love that way of pronouncing the name, because it tells you right away which syllable's stressed, etc. And your mother's right--it IS funny. A great friend in the Air Force was named Jaszewski (ja-ZESS-skee) and another was Kocialski (ka-CHOL-skee)--those Polish names are almost impossible to say correctly unless you know the secret passwords.

      Interesting, about meeting Ayn Rand! Was the signing for Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead?

  7. Pardon my peeking in again, John, but the comments reminded me of others.

    A French colleague and her husband were visiting the Western US and asked how to find the Moh-jave Desert. I have sympathy for her.

    Lutz, Florida is pronounced ‘loots’. When I met one of my very favorite authors at a Bouchercon, a certain JLW chastised me for mispronouncing the man’s name: John Lutz’s surname rhymes with klutz. JLW made up for it by inviting John and wife and me to dinner.

    If I understand correctly, the middle name our own David Edgerley Gates contains a hard G similar to Edgar rather than edger.

    1. Leigh, I scored two out of four. I knew Moh-jave and John Lutz, but did NOT know the correct pronunciation of Lutz, Florida (I would've thought it was the same as the author's name). I also didn't know how to correctly pronounce D.E.G's middle name. And he's a fellow SleuthSayer!

      By the way, JLW has probably corrected me more times than you--and he's usually right! But he and I disagree on at least one grammar term--he doesn't like the word snuck. Just to irritate him, I snuck it into several Criminal Brief columns anyway.

    2. Actually, not. "Edgerley" is an old family name, on my father's side, and pronounced with a soft G, as in EDGE-er-ly, vice EDGAR-ly.

    3. David, thanks for setting us straight! Edge-er-ly it is. (Look at this way--you know you're famous when people start speculating about things like that . . .)

    4. Thanks for the correction, David. I'm gonna edge outta here.

  8. Elizabeth Dearborn18 March, 2023 15:15

    Yes, that earlier comment was mine. I forgot to fill in the blank with my name. I met Ayn Rand about 1964 & most of her bestsellers had already been published by then.

    I went to junior high school with two possibly unrelated people whose last name was Lutz. One pronounced it to rhyme with klutz, the other rhymed it with suits.

    1. Before your comment and the one earlier from Leigh about the town name, Elizabeth, I would've thought there was only ONE way to pronounce Lutz.

      Learn something every day . . .

  9. Another interesting and fun post. .Even in the city of Wilkes-Barre, where I live, there is dispute about the proper pronunciation. Natives pronounce it WILKS bar, WILKS barry, WILKS bare, etc. I believe the proper pronunciation is WILKS berry, since the city was named after John Wilkes and Isaac Barre and that is how they pronouced their names. But, who knows?

    1. Hey Bob! Thanks for the insider info. Lots of options there--Sounds like it's difficult to pronounce it *wrong*!

  10. Another fun post, John!

    Some years ago, my then-young niece asked me who I liked better, Ron or Hermy One. It wasn't until she actually showed me the Harry Potter book that I realized she meant Hermione.

    And I spent fifteen years living in Ohio, where Berlin is pronounced BURR-lin, Lima is LIE-muh, and Wooster is WHUH-ster (like the shire sauce).

    1. Josh, I knew about Lima, but not the other two Ohio towns. Thanks!

      I love the story about Hermy One!!!! That's sure the way the name looks on the page.

    2. Josh, I live only a few miles from Berlin, Connecticut, which is also pronounced BURR-lin.

  11. Many of the interestingly-pronounced towns in Texas were originally Spanish and got taken over by English speakers who butchered the names. As the state's population becomes more and more Hispanic, I'm hoping some of them get corrected. It hurts my ears that the town of Palacios is pronounced Pa-Lash-iz, Llano is Lan-O, Salado is Sal-A-do. We won't talk about Amarillo, the Spanish word for the color yellow.

    1. Interesting--I didn't know that, but it sure makes sense.. I agree with you, on those examples you listed.

      Thanks so much for the information!

  12. I'll never forget how CBS covered the Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crash in 1977. Walter Cronkite gravely intoned that the tragedy took the lives of "members of the rock group len-ARD skin-ARD."

    1. Whoa. Mike, I'd never heard that. I guess even the best in the field can make a mistake now and then. (Now that you've told me, I'll never forget that either.)

  13. Besides all the native American names in Texas it's hard to knknow like Waxahachie, like Walks-ah-hachee. And Mexia is Mah-hay-ah as Bill Crider used to tell folks around the country. Where I live is a nearby town named Burnet and that's also the name of my county. We tell people it's Burn-it-

  14. Well, it wouldn't let me finish. Burn-it-durn--it.
    I'm like the Jeopardy champion today, learned to read at an early age but NOT the proper pronounciation of words. She was 7 years old and pronounced melancholy as Melon-cholly. I can't recall all the words I used to say incorrectly but I know as I got older & heard people talking on television I was surprised quite often.

    1. Hey Jan -- Thanks for trying twice, on the comment. The Blogger program can be iffy sometimes.

      We have plenty of those Native American names for towns and counties here in Mississippi too. Oktibbeha, Tishomingo, Issaquena, Itawamba, Attala, Yalobusha, Pontotoc, many more. Understandably, folks from elsewhere have a fit trying to pronounce them. As for children mispronouncing words, we've all been there--how CAN you know how to say some of them you've heard them spoken? The first time I heard someone say "calliope," I honestly didn't know what she was talking about, and remember feeling pretty stupid. That's one reason I try, in my fiction, to stay away from words, titles, and character names that readers might have trouble pronouncing. (I can't help thinking of The Holcroft Covenant, by Robert Ludlum. I heard he originally wanted to call it The Wolfsschanze Covenant, but cooler heads prevailed.)

      Always good to hear from you--thanks again!


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