Showing posts with label pronunciation. Show all posts
Showing posts with label pronunciation. Show all posts

21 January 2024

Harsh Words

words (graphic)

One of our correspondents sent an article, ‘31 of The Most Hard-to-Pronounce Words in the English Language’. In actuality, the problem isn’t necessarily difficulty vocalizing the words, but associating their voicing and spelling. As their web page explains, English doesn’t always follow a strict likeness between its writing units (graphemes) and sounds (phonemes). Remember the sound-alike spellings of ‘fish’? Ghoti? Pheti?

This disconnect can result in embarrassing mishaps.

  • A French friend asked directions to the ‘Moe-Jave Desert’.
  • A national brand of canned food advised the consumer to “let the air excape.”
  • Dan Quayle couldn’t spell ‘potato’.
  • George Bush Jr couldn’t pronounce ‘nuclear’.
  • I can’t spell, uh… More on that in a moment.

I’ve watched words change meanings such as ‘nimrod’. Originally it was a Biblical name, which came to mean sharpshooter or good hunter, and recently has now come to mean a dolt, an idiot.

words (graphic)

I’ve also observed words change pronunciation. Thanks to a horrible branding ad campaign, the word ‘chic’ changed from a pronunciation of ‘sheek’ to ‘chick’. Ugh. When I was a child, ‘pot pourri’ sounded like ‘POE poor-ree’. Years later when I heard my mother call it ‘paht POORy’, I questioned her about changing the pronunciation. She said, “I gave up.”

Yatch Yacth Yacht

A story circulates amongst boaters about a sea captain who each morning extracted a slip of paper from a drawer and read it before putting it away again. One night a deckhand sneaked in and read it. It said,

Port = left; starboard = right.
sailboats: ketch versus yawl

Me, I have difficulty recalling the difference between a ketch and a yawl… I know I want one, either will do. But my real nemesis is the word ‘yacht’.

I can NOT spell that damn word for anything. I had to look up the spelling for this article after getting it wrong TWICE.

In a similar vein, I suspect I’d have more than usual trouble with the word ‘height’ except I used it several times a week in my technical career (and still use it in SleuthSayers HTML). It’s downright cruel that its sister dimension, ‘width’, has a different ending, ‘th’ instead of ‘ht’.

Speaking of technical, I used to confuse trigonometry with nude sunbathing. ‘Tangential’ tended to come out ‘tangenital’.

The Good Housekeeping list dates back a few years and was picked up by Secret Life of Mom

Secret Life of Mom / Good Housekeeping™ Hard Words
accessory espresso lackadaisical nuptial scissors
anemone February library onomatopoeia specific
choir hyperbole mischievous pronunciation squirrel
colonel isthmus murderer remuneration supposedly
coup jalapeno niche rural synecdoche
epitome juror nuclear schadenfreude worcestershire

They ironically end the list with ‘vocabulary’. I suspect they omitted the word ‘yacht’ because no one could spell it. (Damn, I had to look it up again.)

In their word list, I have to be careful not to spell ‘expresso’ and step carefully when writing ‘mischievous’. Other challenging words rattle about in my head, but I’ll end with a historical note.

Mr Monk Mangles the Monastery

In the days before the printing press, monks copied manuscripts by hand. In a particular abbey, the original was copied once and stored away in a vault, and that copy would be copied, and its copies recopied, to propagate across Europe.

A novice approached the abbot and said, “Reverend Father, we’re doing it wrong. By recopying copies, any errors will be reproduced in subsequent versions. I believe we should always copy from the original.”

The abbot was impressed. He said, “You’re right, lad,” and descended to the vault. An hour later, monks passing the doorway heard sobbing. A friar grew brave enough to enter and ask the abbot what was wrong.

The abbot said, “The word celebrate… We left out the R.”

What are your word nemeses?

17 September 2023

Toby or not Toby...

If you thought we were finished with weird English, I'm back with an even more… erm… entertaining take. You can blame the usual suspects, ABA and Sharon, who pass on interesting articles.

Aaron Alon is a musicologist, composer, song writer, script writer, director, filmmaker, professor, and humorist. Shortly before the coronavirus pandemic, he assembled a video about making English consistent, a huge task. This is the result.

  © respective copyright holder


I particularly like the Hamlet reading, don't you? But wait, there's more.  Alon wasn't done.

Following comments and critiques, he came up with a supplemental video in which he, well, sings a classic. Here you go.

  © respective copyright holder


What did you think? Aaron said he might consider a video about making constants consistent. I'm still figure out, "I tot I taw a puddy-tat."

Okay, I promise no more weird English slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. For at least a week.

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.

21 January 2012

Tricky Diction

Twelve years ago, just before our oldest son's wedding, he sent us an e-mail saying he and his fiancee had decided on St. Lucia for their honeymoon. A couple days later I was chatting with an old classmate of his and told her their plans, except that I pronounced their destination "Saint loo-SEE-ah." She suddenly looked as if she might be trying to pass a kidney stone. Only later did I find out that the correct pronunciation is Saint LOOSH-ah.

Mispronunciation can cause that kind of distress, and it's even worse for the speaker than for the hearer. It's like a piece of spinach stuck in your teeth: you never know it's happened until you get home and realize what an idiot you are.

That's easy for YOU to say

Strangely enough, most writers I know are obsessive about correct pronunciation. Maybe it's because we fancy ourselves knowledgeable in the area of language, or maybe it's because we don't want to come across as fools in the occasional radio or TV interview (a valid concern)--but mostly I think it's just because writers like words and word usage. I was delighted a couple of years ago when James Lincoln Warren (an excellent writer and a good friend of many of us at this blog) did a column expressing his disdain for those who pronounce "short-lived" with a short "i," as in "I lived there," rather than with a long "i," as in "I thrived there." I agreed with him. If something is short-lived, it has a short life. With a long "i."

Not so strangely, we seem to notice mispronunciation more when it involves place names. A local TV weatherman--he's since moved away--once told me that when he hired on at the station here, the first thing his boss did was take him aside and say, "You'll be talking a lot about places like Belzoni and Shuqualak and Sebastopol. What you gotta do is learn how to say those names, and don't ever, ever screw them up." (The "i" in Belzoni is pronounced "ah," as in Jonah. If you say Belzonee, even if you're not a weathercaster, you'll get nothing but sighs and eyerolls. And for God's sake don't mispronounce Biloxi. This runs Southerners crazy. It's ba-LUCK-see, not ba-LOCK-see.)

Unless it's part of your job, getting things like this wrong is nothing to be embarrassed about--I'm sure I'm not the only person who's visited New York City and called Houston Street HEW-ston Street (it's actually HOW-ston)--but it does feel good sometimes, when you're a dumb tourist, not to sound like a dumb tourist.

You ain't from around here, are you, boy?

Some pronunciation rules are as mysterious as they are fascinating. The final "s" is removed from both words in the spoken version of Des Moines, Iowa, but if you did that with Des Plaines, Illinois, you'd not only be wrong, you'd wind up sounding like the little guy in Fantasy Island, announcing the arrival of visitors. And in the case of at least one city I can think of, the correct pronunciation sounds downright silly. The wife of an old Air Force buddy (they both grew up in Norfolk, Virginia) jokingly said they'd been told not to use the following cheer at high school pep rallies: "We don't smoke, we don't chew. Norfolk, Norfolk, Norfolk."

Probably the best way to correctly pronounce a town's name is to visit it, or ask someone who's lived there. A writer friend who was raised in Pierre, South Dakota, says locals call it PEER, not the two-syllable pee-ERR. Whooda thunkit? And an old guy from Port Huron, Michigan, once told me its residents just say "Port Urine."

The town where I went to high school is named Kosciusko, for the Polish general Thaddeus Kosciuszko, and I've heard out-of-towners call it kos-SHOOS-ko. Natives, though, call it kozzy-ESS-ko, or, if they're in a hurry, ky-ZESS-ko. (Mississippi is notorious for wild-sounding names anyway; I grew up twelve miles from the Yockanookany River.)

And Macau jumped over the moon

Foreign place names can be particularly interesting. Leicester is "Lester," Cannes is "Can," Qatar is "Cutter," Curacao is "CURE-ah-soe," and Phuket, Thailand, is (thank God) "FOO-get." And here's a neat little hint that I learned on one of my more pleasant IBM trips: In Hawaii, "ai" is pronounced "eye," "i" is pronounced "ee," "e" is pronounced "ay," "a" is pronounced "ah," "o" is pronounced "oh," "au" is pronounced "ow," and "u" is pronounced "oo." Once I knew that, it was easier to manage the names of all those islands and mountains--and other things too. Luau becomes loo-ow, Pali becomes pah-lee, Maui becomes mow-ee, etc. Another old Air Force friend, who still lives in Honolulu, pointed out that Kauai doesn't rhyme with Hawaii, although many think it does. Break it into its parts and Kauai becomes kow-eye, while the state name is the three-syllable hah-wy-ee.

I often stand corrected, though. Having lived most of my life 150 miles from New Orleans, I've always scorned those who call it noo-OR-lee-uns, in four syllables. Every N.O. resident I've ever known has pronounced it either nyoo-OR-luns or nooWOLLins. And then, the other night, I saw the current New Orleans mayor on television saying noo-OR-lee-uns. Sweet Jiminy. And on top of that, Orleans Parish is always pronounced or-LEENS. Is nothing simple?

Does La Jolla annoy ya?

A lot of place names that should be hard to pronounce aren't, because all of us know them: Phoenix, San Jose, Illinois, Tucson, Greenwich, etc. But here's an extremely incomplete list of some that are often mispronounced:

Spokane, Washington--spo-KANN, not spo-KANE.
Versaille, Kentucky--ver-SAYLE, not ver-SIGH.
New Madrid, Missouri--new MAD-rid, not new ma-DRID.
Worchester, Massachusetts--WOOS-tah, not WAR-chester.
Ouachita County, Arkansas--WOSH-i-tah, not oh-ah-CHEE-tah.
Helena, Montana--HELL-in-ah, not hell-LAY-nah.
Bexar County, Texas (San Antonio)--BAY-er, not BECK-sar.
Martinez, Georgia--MAR-tin-ez, not mar-TEEN-ez.
Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan--SOO-saint-maree, not SALT-saint-maree.
Miami, Oklahoma--my-AM-ah, not my-AM-ee.
Kissimmee, Florida--kis-SIM-mee, not KISS-sim-mee.
Bangor, Maine--BANG-gore, not BANG-er.
Berlin, New Hampshire--BURR-lin, not bur-LINN.
Lancaster County, Pennsylvania--LANG-caster, not LAN-KAS-ter.
Willamette River, Oregon--will-AH-met, not WILL-ah-MET.
Valdez, Alaska--val-DEEZ, not val-DEZ.
Lima, Ohio--LY-mah, not LEE-mah.
Oaxaca, Mexico--wah-HAH-kah, not wah-SOCK-ah.
Terra Haute, Indiana--TERR-ah-hutt, not TERR-ah-hawt.
Cairo, Illinois--KAY-ro, not KY-ro.
Sequim, Washington--SKWIMM, not SEE-kwim.
Mackinac Island, Michigan--MACK-in-aw, not MACK-in-ack.

If you pronounce those words as shown, residents in those locations--or viewers, if you're a TV meteorologist--will thank you, or at least leave their guns in their dresser drawers. And if you think of place names I have overlooked (or mispronounced) please let me know.

A guy walks into a Wilkes-Barre . . .

I simply can't resist two jokes that I heard long, long ago:

1. Question: How do you pronounce the capital of Kentucky--Louisville or Louieville? Answer: You pronounce it Frankfort.

2. An out-of-state traveler stops for lunch in the town of Natchitoches, Louisiana. As he's chowing down, he asks a woman seated nearby, "How do you pronounce the name of this place?" Speaking very slowly and carefully, the lady says, "DAYER-ee-KWEEN."

Tongue twisters

I'm not a poet and I noet, but I think a fitting end to this piece is a little ditty I wrote years ago, after one of my far-flung business trips:

I never seem to understand
Our neighbors overseas;
Names like Vzrgkzyrgistan
Just make me say, "Oh, please."

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