Words at Play

You're (Probably) Saying It Wrong

Fifteen words even you might be mispronouncing.

Photo: scanrail

English is hard to spell. Nevertheless, most of us get by with a combination of some basic phonetics, habits from school, and occasional trips to the dictionary (and learning from a few embarrassing mistakes along the way). English has the most difficult spelling of any Western language (and, after all, we have spelling bees, which are nearly unique to the United States). This is partly due to the mongrel nature of the language, which evolved from a combination of Anglo-Saxon (also known as Old English), Latin, Old Norse, and the Anglo-French of the dominant class following the Norman Conquest in 1066.

This motley jumble of languages, plus time (we won’t even get into the great vowel shift), has made English spelling confusing and frequently counterintuitive. It also makes it hard to pronounce many words confidently and correctly, due to the inconsistent relationship spelling has with pronunciation. Consider the various ways we create the \f\ sound in cough, photo, and giraffe, or the \sh\ sound in special, issue, vicious, and portion, or the \k\ sound in tack, quite, and shellac, and how we pronounce the "o" in do, core, lock, and bone, or the "ea" in lead, ocean, idea, and early. And, of course, there’s cough, rough, though, bough, and through.

Let’s look at some words that sound quite different from what one might expect from the way that they are spelled. A few of these are fairly common words, but most are more frequently encountered by reading than from spoken English. Even avid readers with big vocabularies can be surprised by how some words sound. One thing is for sure: if you pronounce these tricky words correctly, it shows that you also know what they mean.

Photo: Rawpixel

\pree-ter-NATCH-uh-rul\ play

Preternatural means “extraordinary” (“a preternatural ability”) or “inexplicable by other means” (a synonym of “psychic”). It comes from the Medieval Latin word praeternaturalis, formed from the Latin words praeter naturam, meaning “beyond nature.” In a sense, preternatural is a fancy way of saying “supernatural.”

Unlike more common words like president, present, and pressure, preternatural is pronounced with a long \e\ sound (\EE\) in the first syllable.

Photo: KenWiedemann

\PRIMM-er\ play

There are two primers: the older word, meaning “a small book” or, more broadly, “a short informative piece of writing,” is pronounced \PRIMM-er\, while the word meaning “an initial coat of paint” is pronounced \PRY-mer\. In British English, both words are pronounced with the long \i\ sound (\EYE\).

Photo: monticelllo

\VIT-ulz\ play

Victuals means “supplies of food” or “provisions,” and comes from the Latin word victualis meaning “of nourishment.” It went through French before it came into English, and the pronunciation was presumably established based on the French spelling vitaille before the spelling was changed to better reflect the Latin root of the word. Vittle is given in our dictionaries as a variant of victuals, but the later learned spelling is the preferred one.

Photo: Pinopic

\KAHNK\ play

This could go either way, since there are two ways to pronounce ch- in English: the more familiar \CHUH\ sound like ranch, rich, and paunch as well as the hard \k\ sound, as in tech and epoch. Although we give \KAHNCH\ as a variant for conch, \KAHNK\ is the more common pronunciation.

Photo: ysbrandcosijn

\KER-nul\ play

Another case of respelling after the pronunciation was established. The French took the word colonnello from Italian—it comes from the word for “column” and referred to the leader of a column of soldiers—but the French altered the spelling to coronel. Such substitutions in different languages are not unknown between liquid consonants. The word came to English from French in the mid-1500s, but by the mid-1600s, the etymologically “correct” (but by now confusing) spelling colonel was adopted in both French and English. Interestingly, the French later also altered their pronunciation, and today pronounce the \l\, whereas English stubbornly remained with the original \r\.

Photo: ysbrandcosijn

\WESS-kut\ play

Wearing a waistcoat was a marker of class and prestige in the 16th century, and knowing how to say it may also have been a demonstration of a class distinction. Presumably just a hasty shortening of the compound term, \WESS-kut\ is the preferred way to say it.

Photo: Clerkenwell

\BOH-sun\ play & \KAHK-sun\play

Boatswain and coxswain are both formed using swain, a now archaic word meaning “boy” or “servant.” The first part of each word is from boat and cok, meaning “cockboat,” or a small boat. The variant spelling bosun reflects the pronunciation.

Photo: -oqIpo-

\SAH-der\ play

The silent \l\ in solder isn’t completely exotic: other, more common words like salmon, calm, walk, should, and calf also have one. But since solder is encountered less frequently than these (and is perhaps spoken more frequently than it is written), it’s a tricky one.

Photo: brizmaker

\KLAB-erd\ play & \KUB-erd\ play

Cupboard literally is a “cup board”: that is, a board or table on which cups can be stored—at least at its origins in the Middle Ages. The “closet” meaning dates to the mid-1500s, and the "p" and "b" of the spelling have long since merged in pronunciation. As an exercise, try saying the literal “cup board” ten times fast, and you’ll experience firsthand how language evolves.

Clapboard has a different story: it came to English as a partial translation of the Dutch word klaphout, meaning “stave wood”; it probably derives from the Dutch verb clappen, meaning “to clap” or “to hit,” from the way carpenters nailed the siding to houses. The literal pronunciation is sometimes used for the wood siding but always used when clapboard refers to the clapping slate used in filmmaking.

Photo: AlexAndrews

\BLAG-erd\ play

Blackguard means “a rude or dishonest man,” and originally referred to the servants of a household’s kitchen or of an army. Time and habit have left us with the pronunciation \BLAG-erd\, which somehow suits its archaic nature.

Photo: TonyBaggett

\VYE-kownt\ play

Not \VISS-kownt\.

Photo: Mlenny

\REK-un-dyte\ play

Recondite means “difficult or impossible for one of ordinary understanding or knowledge to comprehend” as in “recondite scholarship” or “recondite turn of phrase.” It’s also used to mean “hidden from sight” or “concealed.” It comes from the Latin word reconditus, meaning “to conceal,” and though the alternative pronunciation \rih-KAHN-dyte\ is given in our dictionaries, the pronunciation with first-syllable stress is most common.

Photo: XiXinXing

\ih-PIT-uh-mee\ play

The word tome comes from the Greek word tomos, meaning “section” or “roll of papyrus,” from the verb meaning “to cut,” from the time when papyrus scrolls were the equivalent of books and they were cut for ease of handling and storage. Originally, tome in English referred to one volume from a set of books. Epitome comes from the related Greek word epitomē, from the word meaning “to cut short.” Something cut short represented a summary or a collection of the important points of a piece of writing. The apparently un-English pronunciation of epitome reflects its Greek roots; don’t let the tome connection fool you phonetically.

Photo: Warchi

\im-prim-AH-ter\ play

Imprimatur usually means “official approval” today. It comes directly from the Latin word meaning “let it be printed,” and was originally used in English contexts to mean “a license to print or publish,” sometimes indicated by a stamp or imprint on the title page of the book. Since it was originally a bookish word, it stands to reason that the Latinate pronunciation was favored—in Latin, there would be stress on the final two syllables. Since that pattern is very foreign to the ears of an English speaker, many shift the stress to the second syllable for a more familiar pattern, making it \im-PRIM-uh-ter\.

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