Word Matters Podcast

The Words We Mispronounce

Word Matters, Episode 43

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Are we language professionals? Certainly. Does that mean we pronounce every word perfectly? Oh, not even close. Today we'll get into the words that we, the lexicographers, still struggle to say, as well as the joy of learning a word from reading it.

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Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters: words that give us trouble. I'm Emily Brewster, and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski, and I explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionary's vantage point.

You might think that we, as lexicographers, would have a keen sense of how every word is pronounced. Right? Well, today we're going to disabuse you of that notion. We've each been victims of the vagaries of English orthography when a word's printed form makes it nearly impossible to guess its pronunciation, or to match the word to the one you know from conversation. I'll open the discussion about this particular way English pulls the rug out from under those who learn its words through reading.

There's a meme that some of you may have seen. It says, "Never make fun of someone if they mispronounce a word. It means that they learned it by reading." The saying is attributed to Anonymous. I think it is such a good thing to keep in mind, that when someone mispronounces a word, chances are they are mispronouncing it because they learned it on the printed page, not from having heard it. This makes me think of when, I think the first Dickens book I read in school was Oliver Twist, and Oliver Twist, somebody uses the word V-I-C-T-U-A-L-S, which I read as \VIK-chuh-wulz. Right? It is pronounced \VIT-ulz\, not \VIK-shuh-wulz\, although it sure looks like \VIK-shuh-wulz\. There's so many other words that I learned a correct or learned a different pronunciation of that I learned first in books.

Ammon Shea: How is \VIK-shuh-wulz\ pronounced \VIT-ulz\,? I have never heard that in my life, and I have never said either one out loud, I think. But, I've always read it internally as \VIK-shuh-wulz\.

Emily Brewster: Yeah, but apparently it's not. In Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe uses V-I-T-T-L-E-S in quoted speech, and then uses V-I-C-T-U-A-L-S in prose. Clearly, the V-I-T-T-L-E-S, the one that reminds me of cat food, Tender Vittles.

Ammon Shea: Yes.

Emily Brewster: Right, that's the informal way of rendering the word. But, in theory, they are pronounced the same way.

Peter Sokolowski: In fact, we only give \VIT-ul\ as the transcription for this pronunciation at V-I-C-T-U-A-L.

Emily Brewster: That's right.

Neil Serven: The only time I've ever seen anything close to the word in real life is I see at the grocery, sometimes they have something called a common vittler (\VIT-ul-er) license, instead of common \VIK-shuh-wuh-ler\ license. It's someone who is licensed to sell food. Knew vittles from the cat food, I never understood that these were the same word. One was referring to the other. It never occurred to me.

Emily Brewster: That's right, and that license hangs on the wall somewhere of every restaurant you go into, the common \VIK-shuh-wuh-ler\, or common \VIT-ul-er\.

Peter Sokolowski: I think the reason for this is similar to the reason that we say indict (\in-DYTE), but that word is also spelled with a C, because both of these were pronounced in the English way that we understand, and then re-spelled by so called smarter scholars later in the 17th, 18th century who knew the Latin roots. In this case, the vitae from French and middle English goes back to victus in Latin, and that's why they put the C back in. Same is true for indict.

Ammon Shea: I genuinely had no idea that that was pronounced \VIT-ulz\, and that is hardly surprising, because one of my greatest strengths in life is the ability to mispronounce anything I see. But, you're making me feel much better about myself. What are some other ones, Emily?

Peter Sokolowski: Oh, there's so many.

Emily Brewster: There are so many. Well, C-O-M-P-T-R-O-L-L-E-R. This one people might see when it comes to election time, that's how I know the word, but you have to vote for your city's or your town's, not \KAHMP-TROH-ler\, \kun-TROH-ler\. How do you get \kun-TROH-ler\ out of that? It's ridiculous.

Ammon Shea: I always say \KAHMP-TROH-ler\.

Emily Brewster: Yeah, right.

Neil Serven: I would want to say \kahmp-TROH-lerz\ to make it distinct from \kun-TROH-ler\, like a video game controller. I can't say that I would ever just have automatically pronounced it \kun-TROH-ler\.

Emily Brewster: Right, but that is how the term is pronounced. It is pronounced \kun-TROH-ler\.

Peter Sokolowski: We do give the variant with the P, but the first one we give is \kun-TROH-ler\, and of course, \KAHMP-TROH-ler\ is someone who's involved in accounting. It comes from the French word count, and that might explain this pronunciation a little bit, because the nasalized vowels before an M or an N sound a lot the same. In French, this is pronounced (French contrôler \kohn-troh-lay) or (French compter \kohn-tay) to count. That sounds like an N sound, but it's actually the written M. Again, the sound of the word and the way it looks are at odds.

Emily Brewster: That's an interesting point. What about W-A-I-S-T-C-O-A-T?

Neil Serven: Looks like \WAYST-koht\, but-

Emily Brewster: Yes. We give two pronunciations in our dictionary. The British pronunciation is \WESS-kut\, not unlike biscuit. Now, I did happen to just watch the 1951 Alice in Wonderland, and in that, the rabbit is said to be wearing a \WAYST-KOHT\. I had expected that in something of that era, that it would have been \WESS-kut\, so the \WAYST-koht\ pronunciation is the one that Disney went with in 1951.

Ammon Shea: One of the things that happens sometimes when I'm talking to people I've just met and they find out that I worked for a dictionary is, a common thing that people say is, "Oh, I have to watch my language around you," which is really such a joke, because I am born to massacre the pronunciation of the English language. One of the things that's, I think, interesting about lexicographers in general is that we tend to be less judgmental about language use than the average person, and certainly much less judgmental than people think we will be. I feel like I have had an education has been entirely based on learning things from books, that I'm starting with such a deficit in terms of pronunciation that it's very easy for me not to look down on other people, because I have no idea how to speak this language most of the time.

Peter Sokolowski: I think it's an important point, and yet, there is probably nothing more honest and humbling than working with the English language all day, every day, and a trip to the dictionary or a trip to the citation files gives you that humility. Also, because we work with words all the time, they become units, and we become less attached to whatever the perceived cultural residue is. We're much less likely to judge. We're much more likely to notice the way you pronounce things.

Emily Brewster: I think, also, to be a lexicographer who really sticks with it, you have to be very curious about the language. When I hear an unusual pronunciation of a word, my natural response is, "Oh, huh, interesting." It's not like, "Oh, that's wrong," because chances are, it's not. Right? Chances are it's established somewhere, and that person has taken this pronunciation from whatever population that pronounces it this way, or maybe the word has this other history.

Peter Sokolowski: We take it as a data point.

Ammon Shea: In the course of our job, we encounter words more often in print than we do in conversation, or there's so many words that we might not use in our own vocabulary, but we know about them because of the course of doing defining work and having this resources at our disposal. I'm one of the members of the team who puts together the word of the day, and in that daily email that I might not use in my own conversation, and so I remember just learning the other day that the word spelled R-E-C-O-N-D-I-T-E, I want to pronounce that \rih-KAHN-dyte\, but apparently it's \REK-un-dyte\. Apparently, that's the chief pronunciation that we give, is \REK-un-dyte\, and I never understood this. It just kind of shows that we encounter words from a different angle than the general audience, and because of that, it affects how we know words, whether or not we know how to pronounce them as well.

Peter Sokolowski: Voicing the podcast, which is something that I do, I always try to give the variants if a word has multiple pronunciations. That's a challenge, because often I am learning the secondary or the third variant for the first time that moment as I'm recording it, or I learn that the way that I naturally use the word is not the principle one, or even sometimes not the given one.

Emily Brewster: Peter, you're speaking specifically of voicing the word of the day podcast.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah, which you can also get as an email or on your podcast server. All right, here's another one. I-N-C-H-O-A-T-E.

Emily Brewster: \IN-choht\!

Neil Serven: \in-KOH-ut\?

Peter Sokolowski: \in-KOH-ut\. That's a tough one, because again, a word you're much more likely to see than to hear here.

Ammon Shea: When I was six years old, my parents like to remind me of the earliest story they know of me mispronouncing things. I came to the dinner table one time, and I don't know what I had been reading, but I asked them who Freud (\FROOD) and Jung (\JUNG) were. Rather than think this is a precocious kid, they chose to laugh at pronunciation, which says a the thing about our family dynamic there, which I'm totally fine with.

Peter Sokolowski: I was reading The Three Musketeers in English, and I referred to the principal character as d’Artagnan (\DAHR-tig-nan) for the entire length of the book, and finally discussing it, it was only with my parents who they said, "This is \dahr-TAN-yun\," and this is before I learned to speak French. I had French as family terms with my grandparents, but I didn't know it as a kind of literary language.

Ammon Shea: Do you have any particular favorites, Emily?

Emily Brewster: Oh, particular favorites. I mean, there's so many food ones that are really good. The world of menus is rife with terms that do not follow English typical pronunciations. Say you want to go order some P-H-O. When I saw that soup, I assumed it was called \FOH\, and it's actually pronounced \FUH\, which is the pronunciation of its source language. It's not \FOH\, it's \FUH\. Also, gnocchi (\NYAH-kee), that's a tough one for someone who is familiar only with words that follow more traditional English spelling.

Peter Sokolowski: That leads us to this idea that a lot of food terms, we're still saying them in English, so that, like Freud and Jung and D'Artagnan, we sort of anglicized them. In some ways we were respecting their source language, but we shouldn't judge these things as they would be pronounced, for example, in French or in German. We're speaking English, the term I believe is phonotactics, which is to say the sounds that are typical of a given language.

Emily Brewster: You're listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster. We'll have more challenging words after the break. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster, in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Ammon Shea: I'm Ammon Shea. Do you have a question about the origin history or meaning of a word? Email us at wordmatters@m-w.com.

Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for the Word of the Day, a brief look at the history and definition of one word, available at merriam-webster.com, or wherever you get your podcasts. For more podcasts from New England Public Media, visit the NEPM podcast hub at nepm.org.

I think there are others that are hard to discern, because they maybe have changed over time. In other words, they're spoken so frequently or so fast, words like bo'sun and coxswain or solder or clapboard.

Emily Brewster: Solder is a really good one. Bo'sun is spelled B-O apostrophe S-U-N, but also B-O-A-T-S-W-A-I-N. It's a nautical term, like a boat swain is what it looks like, but it's actually pronounced \BOH-sun\. I mean, I think there's the category of words that have been in English for hundreds of years, and they are used especially in literature, and they've lost some of the specificity in their pronunciation. Clapboard (\KLAP-bord) is another one, and I think waistcoat falls into this category, also. Clapboard (\KLAP-BORD) is what the word looks like, but it's actually \KLAB-erd\.

Peter Sokolowski: Cupboard (\KUB-erd).

Emily Brewster: (\KUB-erd).

Peter Sokolowski: It's a board for cups.

Neil Serven: Cupboard is probably an instance where, talk about Old Mother Hubbard going to her cupboard, if you're a child, you hear that word before you've seen it in print.

Peter Sokolowski: Right.

Neil Serven: You have to kind of do a double-take when you see it. I know the word cup, I know the word board, but this compound word cupboard is what I am reading here, is what other people are calling cupboard. You have to make that association, and even though you actually know both parts, both from the oral and the written angle, you still have to make that connection. Another word I always mispronounce, or mentally mispronounce, even though I had heard it in my conversations before, is the word A-W-R-Y. I always heard things going awry (\uh-RYE), but in my mental reading, when I would see it on the page, it's going \AHR-ee\. It rhymes with sorry. It gives an indication of how the two paths to learning language, the written word and the oral word, they don't always connect. They don't always find that nexus in your brain where you can make the association from one to the other.

Peter Sokolowski: Cupboard is unusual in this category because it is a household word, but there are others that you learn in English class, high school or college English class, words that I will say as omnipotent (\AHM-nee-poh-tunt) or epitome (\EP-ee-tohm). These are two classic ones, where saying it out loud shows immediately that you have encountered this a lot, or that you haven't.

Emily Brewster: \EP-ee-tohm\, that's a good one.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah.

Emily Brewster: \ih-PIT-uh-mee\.

Peter Sokolowski: And omnipotent. With omnipotent, its interesting stress pattern that may come with frequency. If a term is used frequently, then it may change into a stress pattern that no longer respects the different word parts that make up the word, but now treat it as a longer utterance.

Emily Brewster: In my early days at Merriam-Webster, I changed my pronunciation of the word mischievous. All my life, I think I had said \miss-CHEE-vee-us.

Peter Sokolowski: Interesting.

Emily Brewster: I'm sure I would have spelled it with a V-I-O-U-S instead of a V-O-U-S. But, I remember sitting at my desk at Merriam-Webster and looking at this word and realizing, "Oh, there is no I-O-U-S, it's \MISS-chuh-vus\."

Peter Sokolowski: But, here's the thing. That spelling influenced pronunciation that you think just corrected you, often will lead you awry (\uh-RYE), because spelling influenced pronunciation is clearly a thing. If you watch classical British actors, in I, Claudius, for example, you'll hear John Hurt say, \SOHL-dee-er\ very clearly say the D in soldier, which I almost never hear anyone else say. Or occasionally, I'll hear even now British news readers say Wednesday (\WED-nus-day). You think, "Well, you're looking at this literal spelling."

Emily Brewster: But, many of the spellings that do not make sense in English do represent former pronunciations. You gave an example with indict. That is a counter-example, but in many of these pronunciations, drought used to be pronounced with the G-H probably said something \KH\, right. \DROWKHT\, or something like that. A lot of these pronunciations that are not phonetic by our modern reading of the word were, formerly.

Peter Sokolowski: Right. Like, knight in shining armor was \KNIKHT. With these stress patterns for Latin-based words, like imprimatur (\im-prih-MAH-tur), which a lot of people will put the stress somewhere else, like \im-PRIM-uh-tur\. English is unusually vicious in this particular way, not just with our spelling, but with our phonetics.

Neil Serven: I have a question. How do you guys pronounce the fruit dessert that is similar to ice cream?

Ammon Shea: \SHER-bert.

Peter Sokolowski: Sorbet (\sor-BAY).

Emily Brewster: Gelato.

Neil Serven: Now you're just showing off.

Emily Brewster: \SHER-but\ is what I say.

Neil Serven: Okay, so Emily says \SHER-but\, and Peter, I heard you say \SHER-BERT.

Peter Sokolowski: Yes.

Emily Brewster: What do you say?

Neil Serven: I think I say \SHER-but\, but I've been aware of use of \SHER-bert\, and how some people call that an error. We enter both spellings and each pronunciation assigned to the spelling, so we have sherbet with the spelling B-E-T, and sherbert, B-E-R-T. One became a habit after people interpreting sherbet as sherbert. We both are accepted now, not really as a misspelling, although traditionalists I think would say it's sherbet and only sherbet. It's sort of interesting in that way, how even a word that gets misheard or misinterpreted, then gets altered.

Emily Brewster: Just makes it easier for everybody.

Neil Serven: Yeah.

Emily Brewster: I don't think we can leave this conversation without talking about nuclear (\NOO-klee-er, NOO-kyuh-ler).

Peter Sokolowski: Ah ha.

Emily Brewster: We probably have to.

Neil Serven: Yes.

Emily Brewster: Yeah. Famously, there've been various politicians who have said \NOO-kyuh-ler.instead of the pronunciation that reflects the spelling, \NOO-klee-er\, and they were castigated roundly for this alternate pronunciation.

Neil Serven: My opinion on that is, it's a pronunciation that does not agree with the spelling. I think in the dictionary, we show the pronunciation \NOO-kyuh-ler\, and we show it with a symbol in front of it called an obelus. Essentially, it means it's been a pronunciation that is not standard or is not regarded as standard based on how phonetics is taught. A number of leaders have used it. They got castigated for it. It's not, in my mind, a hard word to understand how that pronunciation comes about, because nuclear is really a weird letter pattern, to have that double vowel and then have two syllables with the vowel. You have the –cle- and then the -ar. The most likely explanation is you kind of want to rearrange the letters mentally to resemble other words that are familiar, like molecular, which does have the vowel-consonant-vowel pattern. That is possibly one explanation for why \NOO-kyuh-ler\, becomes familiar pronunciation and a comfortable pronunciation, instead of \NOO-klee-er\.

Emily Brewster: Yes, it's a more comfortable pronunciation. It's more similar to other words. There aren't very many words that end in that -klee-ahr\, -kleer\ ending.

Neil Serven: Right.

Ammon Shea: What I think is interesting about that particular case is that, to me, shows that our snobbishness with pronunciation outweighs our adulation of public figures. The list of presidents, going back to Eisenhower, a clear majority of them say that word in a distinctly non-traditional manner. George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Carter. The non-traditional pronunciation greatly outweighs the traditional one, and yet, we still, rather than say, "Listen, all the presidents say it this way. It can't be that bad," we've stuck to our guns of saying this is an evil thing to say this way, which I think doesn't make too much sense.

Peter Sokolowski: Also, there's really only one other word, which has cochlear, which has that particular sequence of nuclear. It is kind of an unfamiliar pattern for English.

Emily Brewster: It is. It's perfectly reasonable to want to shift that to something that's more similar in pronunciation to all these other words.

Peter Sokolowski: Which is the way a lot of pronunciations do get altered. Part of this is people like to be judgy. People love using the dictionary to correct other people. Because this is a word that is vaguely scientific, of course, and relatively easy to spell, people depend on that spelling for phonetics. Of course, traditionally, yes, the spelling reflects the pronunciation. But, if you go by that, you're going to find a lot of exceptions to that rule in English.

Emily Brewster: Now, I wish that I could remember who made this point, it is not me. Some other linguist has made the point that people who pronounce nuclear as \NOO-kyuh-ler\ do not use the alternate pronunciation when they're talking about a nuclear family. I remember learning that somewhere, and I'm not confident enough to say that that is actually true because I haven't done the research, and I don't even remember who said it. But, that would be an interesting fact, that these would have two different pronunciations in different contexts. Certainly, a word can develop multiple pronunciations for various contexts, but I don't know. Have any of you heard that?

Neil Serven: I have heard it, but I haven't seen the evidence or the examples. I just heard someone make the claim, and I can't remember who made the claim. It sort of makes sense and kind of goes to my earlier point about when you associate a nuclear with a word like molecular, you kind of want to meld the two together and make one sound like the other. I think that could easily be the mental reasoning why that pronunciation gets shifted. When you talk about nuclear family, you're in this other category of language. You're talking about sociology and psychology, and maybe just by doing that, and being introduced to the term, you're not persuaded by science vocabulary, you're persuaded by sociological vocabulary, or whatever have you. If you say nuclear family, you're not thinking about particles, you're thinking about this other concept that's on its own, that you then have pronunciation that you can associate it to.

Emily Brewster: I'm going to do some homework. Maybe the next time we meet, I will have some information for you about that assertion about the pronunciation of the word nuclear, because I think it's a really interesting one question.

Peter Sokolowski: I think something similar has been said about \EK-uh-nah-miks\ and \EE-kuh-nah-miks\. Home economics has kind of influenced the word in one direction, and then the study of money has influenced it in the other direction, and they coexist.

Emily Brewster: Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us on Apple Podcasts, or email us wordmatters@m-w.com. You can also visit us nepm.org, and for the word of the day and all your general dictionary needs, visit merriam-webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt. Artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by John Voci and Adam Maid. For Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster, in collaboration with New England Public Media.

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