Intentional Mispronunciations

Don’t you find it slightly irritating when people intentionally mispronounce words? Sometimes it isn’t merely a silly affectation. What bothers me are cases where people consciously reject the accurate version and flaunt their personal (inaccurate) alternative. It comes across to me like they are magnifying their ignorance with a sizeable dose of obnoxious stubbornness.

Anyone, of course, can accidentally mispronounce a word. Well, anyone aside from C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, that is.

I don’t enjoy (but don’t object to) simple silliness. In a 1932 American Speech article entitled “Intentional Mispronunciations,” the author says, “the custom is an old one, and in our age of light-hearted youth it is unusually widespread.” She immediately notes one danger.

The use of mispronunciations sometimes becomes habit, and it is often difficult to speak correctly when one is in sophisticated company.

The humble person, when advised on the proper enunciation of a particular word, thanks their friend (only friends should dare to sensitively point out such a slip). After expressing that appreciation, they go forward with the commitment to being a bastion of proper usage of the word in question.

However, there are those obstinate ignoramuses (OIs) who defiantly insist on perpetuating their sins.  

Let us consider a common error. One that is quite easily corrected, unless the OI insists on actively rejecting knowledge. The word is “nuclear,” and you already know what the all too common mistake is. How can anyone, much less a graduate of Yale, entrusted with the Gold Codes, accompanied at all times by a military aide ready to hand them the “nuclear football,” continue to use the non-word nu-cu-lar? I have no idea how common this atrocity is outside the United States, but here in the States, it is far from rare.

A good friend of mine, who does public speaking, insists on pronouncing “recognize” without its “g.” I understand he must have learned it that way, but I will never get used to a person with advanced degrees saying “rec-a-nize.” My father was a curmudgeon, and this conscious affront reinforced his chosen image. He loved to push my buttons by adding an “r” to the state I call home. Warshington doesn’t exist on any map, but it certainly did in his mind.

Why Pronunciations Err

People are prone to mispronunciation when they’ve only read a word, and never heard it pronounced before. This was especially perilous before the existence of online dictionaries.

There is another hazard which can mislead someone in pronouncing a word incorrectly—and it was to this that I succumbed my first year at seminary. This is the case where a word is spelled in a manner that makes the errant pronunciation possible, and you have only heard it pronounced in the wrong way. This is the story of my shame.

I was taking a consortium course on ministry and media, which was taught by professors from four or five different seminaries. In my first “radio” presentation, I cited a passage from one of the Psalms. Everyone said it was well done—until the Roman Catholic professor (with nary a hint of affirmation) declared, ex cathedra: “it’s ‘sahm;’ you don’t pronounce the ‘l.’”

I was so embarrassed that I remained silent and soon as I got home I pulled out my dictionary, and darned if he wasn’t right. I have pronounced it correctly ever since, even in the face of a world that now considers me to be wrong.

My aversion to the intentional-mispronunciators does not extend to people who say “salm.” After all, that’s how the word should be pronounced.* But those people who insist on saying “re-la-ter” when the profession is clearly spelled “re-al-tor,” are begging for some sort of aversion therapy.

There is one additional case I wish to note here. That is when there are two (or more?) legitimate ways to pronounce a word. I’m not referring to homographs, like wind (wĭnd) and wind (wīnd).

C.S. Lewis also discusses pronunciation at great length in his essay “The Alliterative Metre,” where he notes,

In modern English many words, chiefly monosyllables, which end in a single consonant are pronounced differently according to their position in the sentence. If they come at the end of a sentence or other speech-group—that is, if there is a pause after them—the final consonant is so dwelled upon that the syllable becomes long.

If the reader listens carefully he will find that the syllable man is short in ‘Manifold and great mercies’ or ‘The man of property,’ but long in ‘The Invisible Man’ or ‘The Descent of Man.’

Words with multiple formally accepted pronunciations are fair game—as long as a person’s choice is from the list. Here’s one where pronouncing the “l” is optional: almond. Apricot can begin with either the sound “app” or “ape.”

A Playful Game Using Homographs

The following example uses a name, but the principle would be the same for any word with more than one authentic pronunciation. It comes from a book I read many years ago, which has retained a fond place in my memory. Robert McAfee Brown (1920-2001) was a Presbyterian theologian. The title of the volume suggests its satirical bent: The Collect’d Writings of St. Hereticus.

One of the appendices in the book is called “Theological Gamesmanship.” One of the games he features is “How to Win a Theological Discussion Without Knowing Anything.” The following gambit is called “Help from St. Augustine.”

A quiet yet forceful way of demonstrating superiority when Augustine is under discussion is to pronounce his name in contrary fashion to the pronunciation of the Opponent.⁑ Make a point of emphasizing the contrast, so that it will be apparent that you know you are right, and not even for politeness’ sake will you pronounce the name incorrectly as Opponent is doing. Either,

Opponent: . . . leading ideas in Augustine (Ogg-us-teen).
Self: Augustine (uh-Gust’n)may have said that on one or two occasions, but . . .
Opponent (usually an Anglican in this case): . . . leading ideas in Augustine.
Self: Augustine may have said that on one or two occasions, but the whole Augustinian tradition, following, as I believe, the essential Augustine himself . . .

In this second gambit, it is advisable to maneuver the conversation into a discussion of “the Augustinian tradition” as indicated, so that when Opponent refers to it, as he must, without pronouncing it “the Augustinian tradition,” you can smile deprecatingly, to indicate that your point has been made.

[Brown adds a footnote that reads:] With sensitive Anglicans, it will often be enough simply to raise, ever so slightly, (a) both eyebrows, and (b) the second, third, and fourth fingers of the left hand.

Naturally, I’m not seriously suggesting that one-upmanship is something in which one should engage. On the contrary, Brown (and I) are holding up this sort of petty behavior as beneath the dignity of good people.

I’m sure that some would argue that correcting someone’s pronunciation in even the most glaring examples of verbal atrocities, constitutes bad manners. I, however, appreciate being privately corrected, so that I might not continue making the same mistake. Thus, I consider it the act of a friend.

C.S. Lewis was a patient and gracious man. He was quite tolerant of variation in pronunciation, even when it came to his own creations. In 1952 he responded to a correspondent inquiring how to properly pronounce the name of Aslan. I would guess the most common American version would be “æzˌlæn” opting to pronounce the “s” as a “z.” Here is Lewis’ response:

It is a pleasure to answer your question. I found the name in the notes to Lane’s Arabian Nights: it is the Turkish for Lion. I pronounce it Ass-lan [æsˌlæn] myself. And of course I meant the Lion of Judah. I am so glad you liked the book.

I loved the book, and I affirm its readers, whichever way they pronounce the name of the Great Lion. Well, as long as they don’t intentionally mispronounce it, including an invisible “r.” After all, there is most certainly no beloved image of Christ named Arslan!

* This waiver does not extend, however, to what may be the most common biblical mistake. The Book of Revelation does not have an “s.” Yet, how often do you hear it cited as Revelations?

⁑ This brazen technique is equally effective, no matter which pronunciation the person you seek to upstage has used.

The cartoon at the top of this post is used with the permission of xkcd.

30 thoughts on “Intentional Mispronunciations

  1. So it’s NOT “Warshington”? I guess your Dad was being mischievious then. 😎 And I had no idea Aslan is Turkish for Lion. Lewis still surprises!

    1. Ah… there are people who really believe that’s the pronunciation of Washington State. Of course, these are folks from out east who have never traveled to “these parts.”

      More common, however, are the people who mispronounce Oregon. It’s or-uh-gn, accenting the first syllable, not or-us-gone, accenting the final syllable.

      1. We Easterners have our own bones to pick, like pronouncing Albany (city in NY and GA), and if you’re a Southerner, well, the pronunciation of pecan could be a shibboleth.

  2. I wonder how many of your readers are not verbalizing their lexicon repeatedly to themselves… I’ll admit I tend toward a ‘recanize’ instead of ‘recognize’ and did not know about Psalms, either. How do you say, “coupon?”

      1. … ah! Which is another point I thought to make when I read of your ‘nuclear’ lament: I believe many political leaders intentionally ‘mis-pronounce’ in order to relate to a broader section of the population.

  3. Rita Goodman

    I say kyew-pon here in Or-uh-gn.

    For years I would read “misled” and pronounce it to myself mai-zled, which rhymes with…nothing that I know of. Think fizzled with a long i sound. Of course, I had heard the word mis-led in speech, but didn’t put the two together. I blame our strange spelling system. I told my daughter this, and after laughing she asked me what I thought it meant. “Something bad, like deceptive”, I said. In this case, hearing the written word pronounced still didn’t make it click for some reason.

    1. That’s a pretty common variant for coupon.

      That misled mental “pronunciation” reminds me of being young and knowing from its context the meaning of epitome. However, since I don’t recall it ever being used around me, in my mind it was eh-pi-tome in three syllables.

      As for spelling contributing to our confusion–most definitely.

  4. English pronunciation is great fun, quite often you can get away with a wrong pronunciation by just sounding confident particularly with more unusual words.

    For more common words there is a great poem (the chaos) comparing words it ends:
    ‘Finally, which rhymes with enough,
    Though, through, bough, cough, hough, sough, tough??
    Hiccough has the sound of sup…
    My advice is: GIVE IT UP!’

  5. Hi Rob,

    Man, yes, tomato toemato. What’s interesting is the British spellings and pronunciations. Most of the time the Brits are much more proper than us and other times words are just broken down.



    1. Ah, those delightfully silly Brits!

      I used to think they mispronounced aluminum, until I learned they actually spell the word with the extra syllable!!! Aluminium.

  6. Lazy pronunciation is becoming more and more common. Have you noticed that the simple verb “can” is often pronounced like “ken” or “kin” these days? And you’d better not get me started on the deterioration of English grammar! I cringe when people-who-should-know-better misuse their pronouns. Few care anymore; I’m just a dinosaur from a bygone era.

  7. I think this is common for words you first encounter in writing vs. conversation. I know I was surprised when I learned the correct pronunciation of “chic” and “chaos” – I had been mentally pronouncing them as they were spelled.

    1. Quite true. This can be quite embarrassing when we wish to use a word that perfectly fits the subject matter in a conversation… which we have never heard properly pronounced. Those of us who were raised in households that placed little value on reading and advanced literacy, were particularly handicapped.

      1. By the way, I love the subtitle of your blog: “Judaism, work, life, poetry, etc. Not code for “single and looking”. This is not a dating blog.”

        What a delightful illustration of the confusion arising in a world where so many people speak in euphemisms and disingenuous codes.

      2. True. I have great empathy for people learning English as a second or third language. One of my granddaughters (in the 7th grade) is quite bright and doing well in school, but constantly complains about the irregularities and oddities of this confusing language.

Offer a Comment or Insight

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.