You’re Saying It Wrong

Authors: Ross Petras and Kathryn Petras

Type: Non-fiction, single subject

Full title: You’re Saying It Wrong: A Pronunciation Guide to the 150 Most Commonly Mispronounced Words and Their Tangled Histories of Misuse

Published: 2016

I read it: May 2017

you're saying it wrong

I received a free copy of this book as part of a Goodreads giveaway.

My second son turned two today and my wife made a list of all the words he knows. It came in at 75 items, far more than we would have guessed just from his day-to-day babblings. He does need to work on his pronunciation—”moon” is a super cute “mun”—but most of his single-word choices pose very few problems and he’ll nail them down in short order.

For the adults in the multi-syllabic world, the English language is far more challenging. This handsome little book by a brother-and-sister duo has a plethora of entries about words we often trip over when speaking aloud. Or rather, perhaps “plethora” is inaccurate here. The book veers into some explanatory territory about definitions, and I learned that plethora (PLETH-er-uh) means not just many, but too many. We’ve been using it wrong if we just say it to mean a bunch.

The title of the book is a bold one, and while I do get annoyed at bad writing and words misused or misspelled in written form, I don’t hold pronunciation to quite the same standard. Words like “ain’t” just sound old-timey and quaint, and while the act of penning “should of” is unforgivable, saying “should’ve” in a way that sounds like “should of” just doesn’t bother me in the least. The spoken word is fluid; the written word must be far more exact. (I did find a spelling error in this book and had to mark it in pencil.)

If you’re someone who spends a lot of time with words, certain entries may boost your self-esteem because to you they’re so obvious but they still made the final list. For example, how could anyone mess up the proper nouns “Antarctica” or “Ku Klux Klan”? People don’t know how to say “et cetera,” “tenet,” and “segue”? Fools!

But prepare to have your bubble quickly burst. There are many clarifications throughout that may have you mumbling words to yourself so you can practice them anew. “Chaise longue” is not “chaise lounge” and “chimera” is apparently pronounced “ky-MEE-rah.” I welcomed the reminder that “dais” (a platform for speakers) is “DAY-iss” and that “forte” (as in a specialty) is “fort” (although the musical term “forte” is indeed “for-TAY”). Then there’s pathos, which is “PAY-thus” or “PAY-thoss” (rhyming with “toss”), neither of which are how I tend to say it, “PAY-those” (rhyming with “dose”).

The various alcoholic beverages can be a challenge due to their foreign nature, and it’s only because I worked at Trader Joe’s that I knew “viognier” was “vee-ohn-YAY”—and oh look, there’s Trader Joe’s mentioned right in the entry. In the same realm, “liqueur” is “li-KERR” and not “li-KYOOR.” The tendency to say “li-KYOOR” is an example of a “hyperforeignism,” which is when “people try too hard to make a word that’s been imported into English more like the foreign language it came from.” Another one is “coup de grâce” (a finishing blow, or more literally, stroke of grace). The correct pronunciation is “coo-de-GRAHS,” not “coo-de-GRAH,” and if you say the latter you are describing “a stroke of grease or fat.”

Many words have multiple acceptable pronunciations, such as “buoy” (which can be “boy,” “bwoy,” or “BOO-wee”) and “homage” (which used to be just “HOM-idge” but is now also “AH-midge” and “o-MAHJ”). The definitional stories are the most fun, as is the case with “buck naked.” That’s the correct phrase, but has morphed into “butt naked.” This is an “eggcorn,” which occurs when someone “twists a phrase or word, replacing all or part of it with a soundalike that actually makes some sense.” A similar case is “champ at the bit.” That phrase is still the right one, but may be losing usage ground to “chomp at the bit.” Finally, “dull as ditch water” (the correct original) has mostly slid into “dull as dishwater.”

In the literary world, know that Hermione is not “her-my-own,” like I thought it was when I saw the name for the first time in my initial reading of Harry Potter. (It’s “her-MY-oh-nee,” but we know that by now.) The great Tolkien is “TOLL-keen” although I’m sure I won’t flinch when people, including myself, continue to say “TOLL-kenn.” The most popular Lovecraft beast, Cthulhu, may turn its unworldly head if you can properly project “KHLULL-hloo,” although the authors concede that Howard Phillips himself stated that the name is ultimately unpronounceable by humans. Then there’s van Gogh, as in Vincent, and I thought it was a revelation when I saw the Dr. Who episode that confidently used “van GOFF.” But apparently I have to relearn this one as well, as it’s “van GOKH” or “van KOKH.” On the other hand… I think I’ll stubbornly stick with “van GO” on this one. There’s no way I’ll walk around saying “van KOKH.”

There are many more delightful examples in the book. And beware the temptation to use this sleek little volume (seriously, this book feels so nice) as an argument ender. Part of me wants to point out gleefully to my wife that “there’s no ‘gone’ or ‘gon’ in ‘Oregon'” and that it’s really “OR-I-gun.” Perhaps in just the right mood I could bring myself to actually say the book’s title out loud, but to keep the peace among friends, family, and coworkers I’ll probably just make mental notes in my head and then double-check the entry for reference at a later time.

Unless my wife beats me in 7 Wonders: Duel again tonight. Then all the niceties are ore-GONE.

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