Not Above a Book...


So tonight's episode of How I Met Your Mother revealed that Ted Mosby has lived his entire life* pronouncing the world "chameleon" not "kuh-meel-yun" but "tchah-mil-ee-on". [*Until 2011, anyway. The show is technically one big flashback, with detours, from 2030.]

I bet that many of us have had similar experiences — even the best-educated. Being an early and voracious reader, in fact, probably makes one more likely to get an erroneous phonetic pronunciation stuck in one's head, oblivious to how it's actually pronounced aloud.

My own memorable equivalent of "chameleon" is the word that I pronounced in my head as "eh-pih-tohm" and realized a bit on the late side was the selfsame word as "uh-pih-tuh-mee".

Some more examples:

A beloved 6th-grade teacher of mine once slipped and said "werewolf" like "weary-wolf". (The class laughed; she blushed, apologized, and admitted that she used to do that all the time as a kid; she became all the more beloved.)

I heard a quite winsome actor refer to a "biopic" on The Late Show with David Letterman as a "by-ah-pik". While I can see thinking that the word would be stressed like "bionic" and thus rhyme with "myopic" if you read it out of context, given that it's a fairly well-known showbiz neologism that combines "bio" (as in "biography") and "pic" (as in "picture") the gaffe was hard to believe.

When I was a kid reading The Invaders, a 1970s Marvel comic book about a group of superheroes that assembled during the 1940s, the characters often referred to the Nazis derogatorily as "Ratzis" — but early on, at least, I didn't get that the word was slang, because I read "Nazi" as "nazz-ee". DC set Wonder Woman back during World War II for a spell around the same time, so that it would sync with the first season of the Linda Carter television series, and it was thanks to that television series that I realized "Nazi" rhymed with "Yahtzee".

The reverse phenomenon can also occur to those of us who grow up in regions with particular accents, even if the denizens don't think of themselves as having accents – which is to say, pretty much everybody. F
or instance, I recall spelling the word "drawers" as "droors" based on how it sounded.

Anyone want to share their own pet mispronunciations in the comments?


18 comments:

Teebore said...

I definitely agree that being a voracious reader from early on contributes to this problem, as there were tons of words I read and understood but pronounced or read incorrectly because I'd never heard them before.

A few off the top of my head...

I read the word "liaison" as "lie-ah-son" for years before realizing it was "lee-aaa-zon".

I was guilty of the biopic snafu for a few years, having read the term in entertainment publications without really hearing it. I knew full well it was a reference to biographical pictures, but being familiar with the word "bionic" thanks to my sci fi interests, my mind went there instead of the obvious blend that it is.

Enveloped. For years (even into college, ashamedly), I read that as though it were the past tense of the noun into which letters are placed, so that the word rhymed with "eloped".

Blam said...


Teebore: Enveloped.

I guess it makes sense if you came across it before the actual present-tense "envelop".

While I can't actually think of an example at the moment, there are words that do take on different stresses when tenses change or a new form is made, and I know I've failed to recognize said change.

One word I mispronounced for the longest time and still haven't adjusted to unconsciously is "reprise" — I always stressed the first syllable and said the second like "prize" (so rhymes with "knee-highs") instead of saying "rih-preez".'

Blam said...


Here's one: As a young Greek-mythology buff, I called Persephone "Per-sih-fown" rather than "Per-seh-fuh-nee" and got laughed at by a cousin (in his defense, he wasn't being mean — just high). Years later there was a small sense of vindication when she showed up on Jeopardy! as the answer-question in a category called something like "Phone Home"; while the contestant used the proper pronunciation Alex Trebek first repeated that and then drove home the point by saying it like I had as a kid.

Teebore said...

I always stressed the first syllable and said the second like "prize" (so rhymes with "knee-highs") instead of saying "rih-preez".'

Oh, ditto.

Then of course, there are the words I knowingly pronounce wrong amongst friends and those in the know, just cuz I find it funny or to subtly mock the eccentricities of the English language.

Like saying knee, "kuh-nee" or putting the hard "t" on the end of buffet (something which drives my wife nuts).

As a young Greek-mythology buff...

Man, as a similar young Greek mythology buff, we could spend all day talking about the crazy ways I read Greek names as a kid...

Joan Crawford said...

I too said "Per-sa-phone" for years. I was like, man, is that an ugly name. I also used to pronounce "subterfuge" as "sutter-fuge" as I assumed it was a silent 'b' just like subtle.
Being married to a Canadian, I am exposed to tons of weird pronunciations. Do you remember the movie Coneheads? When the teen conehead has a temporary tattoo on her head and Dan Akroyd is all "Remove that "deck-il" from your cone!"
That's how Canadians actually pronounce "decal"! Haha!
Also, they say "fresh prah-dooce" instead of fresh produce and they say "PRO-cessed" cheese. And they say "pasta" like they are all from NYC.

Teebore said...

@Joan: they say "PRO-cessed" cheese

In my real job, one of our customers is the Winnipeg Airport, and from the semi-regular conference calls I have with them, I'm come to know the process as "PRO cess" thing well.

Arben said...

I sure had my fair share of wacky Greek names in my head.

Joan: If you thought the way we all said Persephone was bad, the actual pronunciation of her Roman name, Proserpine, is still even uglier.

I remember getting the Deities and Demigods handbook and pronouncing the first word to rhyme with "mighties".

Arben said...

Blam: While I can't actually think of an example at the moment, there are words that do take on different stresses when tenses change or a new form is made, and I know I've failed to recognize said change.

cycle / cyclical
thesis / antithesis (vs. anti-thesis)
symphony / symphonic

Arben said...

For some reason, I thought that the word "vigilante" was exotic for the longest time and pronounced it "vih-jih-lahn-tay". I finally got that everyone rhymed it with "nook-and-cranny" — not just people from Brooklyn. And I still think it sounds hysterical.

El Qué said...

One of the stupid episodes of stupid Seinfeld that I saw had them using the word "kibosh" over and over again. Not only was it annoying that they were acting like they'd discovered the word (just like they were [sarcasm] the first people ever to use the phrase "yada yada yada" [/sarcasm]) but they pronounced "kibosh" wrong. At least I'd only ever heard it pronounced "kih-bosh" until then, although to be fair my computer's dictionary does have both that and the Seinfeld pronunciation, "ky-bosh".

El Qué said...

Per-sa-phone! Per-sa-phone! Per-sa-phone! Hee.

Teebore said...

@El Que: At least I'd only ever heard it pronounced "kih-bosh" until then

Ditto.

And I'd just like to say I share your disdain for Seinfeld. I think we might be the only two people in the world...

El Qué said...

And I'd just like to say I share your disdain for Seinfeld. I think we might be the only two people in the world...

No, Teebore — Blam hates it too. His good taste, which is to say the fact that his likes and dislikes are basically the same as mine (except for his old-man '70s nostalgia), is one of the foundations of our relationship.

El Qué said...

@Teebore: Like saying knee, "kuh-nee" or putting the hard "t" on the end of buffet

Yay, I do that too! I mostly do it with acronyms, though — the ones that you don't actually read as words, like GLAAD or NAFTA. I have a form of OCD, which I like referring to as "ahk-duh". (Yeah, I thought of "oh-cid" and "oh-kid", but "ahk-duh" is more fun because I can refer to my... um... well, think a James Bond movie.) So the NAACP becomes "nay-kup" and YMCAs are "yik-muhs".

El Qué said...

Dang! I ran to the computer because one of my favorite deliberate mispronunciations just hit me, particularly apropos to what prompted Blam's post, and frickin' Blogger ate my frickin' comment.

Anyway... The word in question is aspartame. I like to accent the "par" and say it with four syllables rather than three, so that it sounds like "ass part'a me": "I only drink soda with artificial sweeteners now because otherwise the calories go right to the ass part'a' me." Giggle!

El Qué said...

So the NAACP becomes "nay-kup" and YMCAs are "yik-muhs".

Of course I meant "yim-kuhs". (Just my dyslexia acting up, I guess; good thing it doesn't interfere much my COD...)

Joan Crawford said...

A true "OCD" would insist that it be spelled "CDO", as we must have order... not that I know anything about that, I just heard it somewhere.

*washes hands happily while singing "Can't Get Me, Evil Bugs That Live Everywhere, I know Your Game!" *

Blam said...


I just typed yet another word that I realized I mispronounced as a kid: voilà.

Of course (well, maybe not "of course" but I'm telling you), I didn't know any French at 5, 6, 7 years old reading comic books, so that word was "voyluh".

I'm not sure I'd say that I hate Seinfeld, but what I saw I rarely found funny and usually found annoying, with the fact that everyone (including the cast) seemed to think it was so clever even more annoying, and... okay, I guess I sort-of hate Seinfeld; mostly, though, I just don't get the appeal.