The “eLight” League, And Other Commonly Mispronounced Words

The other day I was talking casually with a sports fan acquaintance, and  heard him refer to an “eLight” (EE-light) league. After hearing several more references to this strange-sounding league, I realized he meant to say “elite”.

The fear of mispronouncing a word is one of my secret social anxieties. I grew up in a world where one would be mocked or loftily dismissed for mispronouncing any word in the dictionary. As a child, I loved discovering new words through reading books, but I grew fearful of using them in speech after an unfortunate run in with the word “redolent “. It seemed logical to my 12 year old brain to pronounce it as “re-DOH-lent”. The drubbing I received for that mistake (turns out it’s pronounced “RED-i-lent”) made me phobic about using any fresh word in conversation unless I had looked up the pronunciation in a dictionary first.

My strict pronunciation lookup rule protected me from social humiliation until age I was 37, when I tossed the word “detritus” (pronounced as “de-TREE-tus”) into conversation with a British friend. He gave me a puzzled look.

”Do you mean detritus (dih-TRY-tus)?” he asked.

Immediately I realized my mistake. Fortunately my British friend seemed to interpret my gaffe as one of those across-the-pond linguistic mutations, and we moved on. But I renewed my commitment to my childhood pronunciation lookup rule.

By now of course, someone has written a book, YOU’RE PROBABLY SAYING IT WRONG,  about 150 commonly mispronounced words.

I fared pretty well on the article’s extracted list of commonly mispronounced, probably due to my lifelong lookup rule. It turns out I have been mispronouncing “gif”, however. The guy who invented the gif says it’s pronounced “jif”, not “gif” with a hard “g”. My dictionaries are no help on this one: they provide both pronunciations.

Damn the techie torpedoes; I’m sticking to “gif”, with a hard “g”.

Have you ever felt embarrassed because you mispronounced a word in conversation? What are some words that you tripped over?

25 thoughts on “The “eLight” League, And Other Commonly Mispronounced Words

  1. This is not a good subject for someone with a Boston accent. We have our own way of mangling the English language. I still pronounce “akin” as “Aye-kin” rather than with the short “A,” but when I do, I add a disclaimer: I realize the correct pronunciation is ah-kin, but I also drop most G’s and R’s, so just go with it. 😉

    • I call it “embracing regional authenticity “! My peripatetic upbringing exposed me to so many regional accents that I wound up with what’s been dubbed “Midwestern broadcaster speech”. (Although the Midwest was one of the few regions I *didn’t* live in, or even visit, until well into adulthood! 😄

  2. I grew up in Los Angeles, and people mangled the Spanish pronunciations of street and place names all the time.

    But I’m like you, Kathryn, in avoiding any words I’m not sure about. One of my early blunders was “debris” which I pronounced with the “S”. Hey, if a letter’s in a word, it ought to be recognized (which is why I never took French. Latin and German made much more sense when it came to spelling.)

    My cousin, who did speak French, had trouble with “awry”, pronouncing it AWE-ree.

    • Oh, don’t get me started on French. In my late teens I was a stranger to anything in fashion beyond Bobbie Brooks. I was walking with someone and referred to “Givenchy” as “Ga-vin-chee”. Oh my! My more “sophisticated” (and somewhat snotty) companion let me have it with both barrels. 😎

  3. It can be emarassing when I mispronounce but I figure I read & write a lot more than I speak so getting something wrong is inevitable. Can’t think of an example off the bat of common everyday words.

    I did get the wrong pronunciation of the homeschooling program called “Abeka” (to me it looks like ‘Abeakuh’). But evidently that’s not how you say it. 😎

    • I say when one makes a mistake, deliver it with authority. I have misled people sometimes by sounding completely confident while making a point, even when I’m wrong. (I do try to correct the record whenever I realize the error, however).

  4. Kathryn, I too am guilty of “re-DOH-lent” and “de-TREE-tus”.

    Another one I can never remember is “bona fides.” I’m inclined to pronounce it as the plural of “bona fide.” But “fides” becomes two syllables: “feed-es.”

    People who sling that term around will not only look down their noses at you for mispronouncing it, they’ll also doubt your “bona fides.”

    Recently I learned a new word while judging a high school student writing contest: “hiraeth.”

    Wikipedia says: Hiraeth (pronounced [hiraɪ̯θ][1]) is a Welsh word which means ‘nostalgia’, or, more commonly, ‘homesickness’. Many Welsh people claim ‘hiraeth’ is a word which cannot be translated, meaning more than solely “missing something” or “missing home.”

    The smart student added that hiraeth described something lost and longed for that can never be recovered. BTW, she won the contest!

    Leave it to the Welsh to confound the tongue.

    • Thank you, Debbie! I actually have been avoiding using the plural form until now because I’ve been too lazy to look it up. You just saved me from having to pay a visit to my old friend, Merriam-Webster!

  5. Born with a hearing impairment, I made many pronunciation mistakes growing up!

    I cannot hear the difference between an “sh” and a “ch” so my cousins loved to ask me to pronounce chicken or nation. I assumed all “c”s had a “k” sound. Therefore, cease became kease and scissors became skissors. Until a classmate listened to me closely and corrected me.

    I also have difficulty distinguishing between a soft and a hard “g.” The thing is, when I ask people, they just say the word again! So I have to then ask, are you using a soft or a hard g because I can’t hear the difference.

    As a child, I was embarrassed but now, I’ve learned to roll with the punches!

  6. Kathryn, this post strikes close to home for me. I’m a Southern boy, and in my upbringing, anything that makes someone else feel uncomfortable is the epitome of rudeness. If language needs correcting, it must be done quietly and privately. The one who errs honestly has nothing to be ashamed of, and the one who deigns to correct the error inelegantly owes an apology.

    A while back, I was sharing some writing aloud with a group of friends, and in the body of the piece I made a throwaway reference to Sri Lanka, which I pronounced as “Siri Lanka.” In the middle of the reading, a member of the group interrupted to correct me with, “Shri Lanka.” I said, “I don’t care,” and kept reading. Where there’s no confusion in meaning, there’s no cause for interruption.

    This scene from TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD sums up my view of polite discourse:

    “”There’s some folks who don’t eat like us,” [Calpurnia] whispered fiercely, “but you ain’t called on to contradict ’em at the table when they don’t. That boy’s yo’ comp’ny and if he wants to eat up the table cloth you let him, you hear?”

    “He ain’t company, Cal, he’s just a Cunningham-”

    “Hush your mouth! Don’t matter who they are, anybody sets foot in this house’s yo’ comp’ny, and don’t you let me catch you remarkin’ on their ways like you was so high and mighty! Yo’ folks might be better’n the Cunninghams but it don’t count for nothin’ the way you’re disgracin’ ’em—if you can’t act fit to eat at the table you can just set here and eat in the kitchen!”

    • My sweet neighbor — born and bred in South Carolina — would have said, “Bless your heart. I don’t care,” then would have continued reading.

    • I was raised with the Southern manners thing too, so I would never openly correct anyone. It would seem rude and unacceptable, which we were trained to avoid. However, I do occasionally use the time honored Southern put down and dismissal, “Well bless your heart ….”. I love the way people use language in the South!

      • I was born in Kansas City, so when I moved to FL it took a while to understand Southern lingo. My employers were from Alabama and Georgia. One day, after Dianne said she needed to carry her mom to the doctor, it took me a minute to figure out what she meant. After I did, “Carry Me Back to Ol’ Virginny” made a little more sense. And when her husband kept talking about a friend who was ill, I thought the poor guy was sick, but that didn’t make sense with everything else he said about the situation. Come to find out, the friend wasn’t ailing. He was mad. And I love the fact that people never go home. Instead, they go to the house.

    • In high school English, if a student corrected our teacher’s mispronunciation of a French word/phrase, he would (without looking up) say OWIE OWIE MONSOOR and keep going.

  7. I recall watching a Criminal Minds episode where the team came to the beautiful Pacific Northwest to catch a killer. Everyone in the show mispronounced both Spokane and Coeur D’Alene, the two cities they visited. They also had some crazy geography errors, like driving from Spokane, Washington to the Montana border in 20 minutes. Yeah, not unless they had a supersonic car or time warp.

    • I love it when the GPS voice garbles a street name. I switched mine to have a British accent; a mangled name in a British accent is totally fun! (And Yes, I am easily amused when driving). 😆

  8. My heart is breaking for young Kathryn. How awful! As several folks have already mentioned, it’s the height of rudeness to correct people in public–even (especially) children.

    There’s a quote out there that I’ll paraphrase: “Never look down on someone for mispronouncing a word because chances are they came upon it while reading. And reading is always a good thing.” I have no idea who said it, but I always think of it when someone mispronounces a word, and it makes me immediately empathetic. I’ve been that reader many times.

    When I first met my in-laws to be, I used the word “nouveau” a couple of times. But I pronounced it “nō vōō.” When we were out to dinner one night, my mother spoke up in front of the whole table and said, “Are you trying to say nouveau (nōō vō)?” I thought I would die.

  9. Pop always made us go to his library sized dictionary to “reconsider” either our pronunciation or misuse of a word that came up at the dinner table.

    But the “kindest” correction I ever got came from a high school English teacher who interrupted me, politely, mid-sentence, when I said, “Seude-o,” meaning, of course, “pseudo” ~ it only took two such subtle nudges and I’ve laughed every time I had chance to show off my “suede-o intelligence”

  10. For years I said I was “rifline” through papers, only to learn one day I’d actually been “riffling” through them. Sigh.

    And I learned it from Stephan Kanfer, for whom I was doing a copyedit. Double sigh.

  11. The one I can’t get right is ‘the gig is up.’ Is it gig? Is it jig? And is it pronounced gig or like jig? And Celtic. The team Boston Celtics is pronounced one way, references to the culture seem to go both ways. And diaspora. I’ve looked it up but the pronunciation doesn’t stay in my memory. I agree with what others have posted, it just seems rude to correct someone else.

  12. I was a teen girl when the pope came to town. While standing around with a group of boys, I said “papal” in a sentence and pronounced the first syllable to rhyme with cap. The boys cracked up. One of them, who was almost in tears he was laughing so hard, repeated my mispronunciation when he teased me, “You mean papal like a pap smear?” I wanted to crawl in a hole and disappear.

  13. See? Never EVER use British English (or Brits) as a guide or standard for American English. Just listening to them pronounce neither-nor, either-or, telly, and other words that produce the jocularity of the pronounced British English has stopped more than one conversation, as I’ve had to walk away before bursting out into laughter in the face of someone from across the pond.

  14. I’ve faced a slightly different problem in my lifetime, I usually know the proper pronunciation of words, I just have trouble saying them. I’m a lifelong stutterer. As such I often feel a stutter approaching in my conversation and use a technique I learned in speech therapy called “circumlocution”. I feel a difficult word coming and I can switch to an easier one on the fly. This sometimes makes for interesting conversations. Especially with the urge that some people have to finish your words for you. If I hesitate at a word I might have trouble with, well meaning people may jump in and finish the word. When they do, I flash the new word and move on. It can become like a game for me. After a lifetime of dealing with this, reading about it and speech therapy, I’ve learned there are no cures for stuttering. But all stutterers seem to have three times when they don’t do it: When they sing, when they are alone, or when they whisper. I’ve learned that the best coping mechanism is a sense of humor. I know all the stuttering jokes. I just can’t tell any of them. (I did apply for a job as a fire department dispatcher once. I didn’t get it.)

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