Book Worm Embarrassments

By Clare Langley-Hawthorne

My children constantly ask me to tell them stories of embarrassing things I did as a child (I’m hoping because they want to feel better about their own mistakes rather than because they just want to laugh at me…) and one of the things I had to fess up to the other day was the number of words I mispronounced or misunderstood, simply because I had only ever read them and never heard them spoken. 

Take detritus, for example, for years I said this incorrectly as ‘derritus’ (don’t ask me why) until I realized my mistake (and in my head this word still sounds wrong). And then there’s ‘victuals’ – another word I had only ever read rather than heard – so when someone finally said the word to me I had no idea what they were talking about. Sadly, there is quite a list of words that I continue to stumble over  because they are imprinted in my brain as the way I read them internally when I first encountered them as a child. It’s amazing how hard it is to undo that kind of conditioning. 

I confess there were also few words that I misconstrued as a child and had no idea of their true meaning until I became an adult. One of these is avuncular – as a child I didn’t encounter the word much but I always assumed it meant someone mean or evil! Clearly, I had no idea how wrong I was…

In some ways this is a peril we all face when reading, as we pronounce words in our head we’ve never actually heard spoken. The pitfalls with foreign words, place names and regionalisms are ever present (and I still haven’t quite mastered how to pronounce ‘quinoa’ or ‘acai’ yet) – though I think that some ebooks now embed pronunciation guides for the gormless like myself…so there’s some hope!

Have you ever mispronounced or misunderstood a word that you had only ever read and not heard spoken? How did you overcome the embarrassment? And in the meantime let’s revel in words like segue, quay, sudoku and epitome, safe in the knowledge that all of us at one time or another will make a ‘fox paz’ (faux pas) or two:)


13 thoughts on “Book Worm Embarrassments

  1. Mine would be “scourge”. Always thought it was pronounced “scawge”. Still do a double take if I read a sentence with that in it.

  2. This has happened to me more times then I can count. But I don’t assume the person I at last hear pronouncing the word is pronouncing it right. Could be they’ve got it all wrong too, and for the same reasons. 😎

  3. Oh, I forgot an example. For a long long time, I thought the word bifocals were pronounced “biff-uh-cals”. 😎

  4. When my son was little, I used to do voices and create characters to help pass time in the car. One of the characters was an alien named Junior (he sounded a lot like Yoda). Junior depended on Chris to explain earthlings, and he was always mispronouncing words. Chris would correct him and explain the meanings. Because we were two guys together, Junior also asked about things like toilet paper and boogers. Very fond memories.

    John Gilstrap

  5. My most recent boo boo was asking about Quinoa at a vegetarian restaurant. I prefaced my question by saying I was a novice, which soon became apparent after I brutalized the pronunciation. Phonetically it’s “keen-wah.”

    Richard–I’ll never look at a freshly mowed lawn the same way again.

  6. I had a clue how anyone pronounced “inexorably”. I pronounced it “in-or-ex-ably”, for whatever reason. Also I remember pronouncing catastrophe “cat-a-stroe”.

  7. Oh dear…

    I still slip and say “congenial” instead of “congenital.” And it’s not funny if you’re taking about something like a heart defect. 🙁

    And I get in REAL trouble when I drag out my pathetic French. That language is a minefield. Like “le baiser” is “the kiss” but if you try to use it as a verb, ie “je l’ai baisser”…well, let’s just say, excuse my French!

  8. Long time ago…I was a freshman in a co-ed high school…we were tasked with reading aloud and I had never seen the word “brazier” before and, uh, mispronounced it. The nun who was teaching the class quickly corrected me. Believe it or not, I still occasionally hear about it from a classmate or two.

    Some years later I heard a similar story about a guy in line at Dairy Queen who, when asked for his order, looked the young lady behind the counter straight in the eye and said, “I’d like a double brazier burger,” making a similar mispronunciation. She looked right back at him and asked, “You want a what?”

    Fabulous question!Yours, Clare, not hers.

  9. I started playing RPGs about 12 years ago and my first character was a mage. While stumbling through as a newbie, I discovered that a mage carries around a tome of spells. Never heard of it. But from that moment on, I knew what a tome was. Yay, new word for me.

    Several years later, I saw the word “epitome” in print somewhere, something about the epitome of ancient something or another. I was like wow, huge tome! Epic + tome = epitome. So now we know how I’ve always pronounced this. 😀

  10. Mine was “redolent.” I put the emphasis on the second syllable until I was corrected (in my defense, I was 14 years old!). I found it so embarrassing that I stopped using words I wasn’t sure about. I spent a lot of my time looking things up, lol!

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