Words: On Sayin’ It Rong
There’s a conversation I have occasionally with fellow reader-geeks, about the words you know perfectly well from books, but almost never hear in conversation. The words you think you know how to say . . . until one day you’re forty-one and find out that all this time, you’ve been doing it wrong.
My personal go-to example for this is “chasm.” I was in my twenties before I discovered that ch is not pronounced as in “chair,” but rather as in “chord.” How was I supposed to know? It’s not as if that word gets used in everyday speech. “Debacle” is another one; like many people, I spent a long time putting the accent on the first syllable (DEB-ack-el) rather than the second (deh-BAH-kel). My sixth-grade teacher nearly cracked up when, during the health unit, I asked a question about kah-PILL-aries, rather than KAH-pill-aries — capillaries.* I don’t think I was ever in the pronounce-the-b camp for “subtle,” but I know a lot of people who were.
I correct myself when I can, of course — but the problem isn’t doing the correction; it’s knowing that you need to in the first place. To learn that you’re pronouncing something wrong, you generally have to hear the correct pronunciation in use, but of course we have these problems to begin with because the words so rarely get spoken. (Plus, when you hear it, you shouldn’t assume the other guy has it wrong; you have to second-guess yourself, and figure out who’s right. Sometimes it will be you. Sometimes it won’t.) You can’t just ask, “what words am I pronouncing wrong?” You don’t know. And unless a friend of yours keeps a list of words they’ve heard you mangle, nobody else is likely to have the answer ready.
But the tough ones are often widely shared, and so I throw the doors open to the internet and ask:
What words did you pronounce wrong for a long time? How were you saying them, and when did you find out your mistake?
Because it’s entirely possible that if you post a comment to the effect of, “oh yeah, I said vuh-HEM-ment for ages, until my wife pointed out it’s VEE-a-ment,” somebody else will read this and think, wait, THAT’S how you pronounce “vehement”? So I am furthermore declaring this a Shame-Free Zone; nobody should feel embarrassed for admitting past or present errors. It’s a common failing of readers, that we have big vocabularies we maybe don’t use right in speech. Whenever I have this conversation in person, people bond over it — knowing they aren’t the only ones to have made those mistakes. Share your stories, admit your blunders, and maybe you can save somebody else from the same fate.
*Though I’m checking all of these in the OED as I list them, and now I discover that accenting the second syllable is a valid alternative, though not the preferred one.