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Looking for a term: mispronouncing a word you've only ever read
August 12, 2014 6:35 AM   Subscribe

Mr. sixswitch and I both have a common experience of precocious kids: trying out words that we've learned from reading in conversation, with tragic results. I pronounced disheveled as dis-heveled (because obviously you could also be heveled), he said 'doicksiem' instead of 'deuxième', and so on right up til yesterday (chassiss for chassis). Is there a linguistics term or nickname for this type of thing?

I first realized this was a common experience watching 'Trekkies', where the 14-year-old kid says about a con, "It was just a total debacle", with the accent on the first syllable (DEH-ba-kul).
posted by sixswitch to Writing & Language (44 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
 
I have heard this referred to as a "calliope" (rhymes with "alley hope"), which I find charming and wonderful, although I do not know if the usage is widespread.

N.B. That is not how the word calliope is actually pronounced.
posted by Sokka shot first at 6:41 AM on August 12 [8 favorites]


I've always called those 'onlyreaditisms'. My favorite is a friend pronouncing rhododendron as rud-donder-hon...
posted by foodgeek at 6:41 AM on August 12


My family calls this a "crew-dite" after our late grandma's mispronunciation of crudité.

Yes, she was mortified when she was corrected.
posted by a halcyon day at 6:48 AM on August 12


Saying "ee tee cee" for "et cetera". Such shame.

Surely you've simply mispronounced the word? Does it need a special word?
posted by Leon at 6:51 AM on August 12 [1 favorite]


In the hope that it will make you feel better, I think this might be a common thing where someone reads a lot but doesn't hear the words in conversation. I've done it tons over the years because I found so many words in books and had to figure out the pronunciation for myself.

My favourite I ever heard is one a schoolfriend of mine uttered when taking a photo years ago - "you look very picture-skew". It took quite a while before I figured out that she'd meant "picturesque".
posted by greenish at 6:54 AM on August 12 [8 favorites]


My family calls this a "crew-dite" after our late grandma's mispronunciation of crudité.

Even as a French speaker, I take great pleasure in pronouncing crudité as if it rhymed with "Luddite."

My Grandma used to make a candy I thought was called "Heavenly Toothfuls." It was only after I saw her recipe card that I realized "toothfuls" was really "truffles" pronounced with a long u. ("Troofles.")
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:07 AM on August 12 [1 favorite]


They discuss this in This American Life - A Little Bit of Knowledge - transcript of it - see act one. (Listen to the audio here.)

They don't mention a specific term for it. It's only really referred to as a misunderstanding or mispronunciation.
posted by Crystalinne at 7:09 AM on August 12 [1 favorite]


Before the Harry Potter movie came out, my kids and my friends and I wasted HOURS, I tell you, trying to figure out how to say Hermione.

I don't think there's a real word for it. But if there were, I'd say it wrong.
posted by kinetic at 7:20 AM on August 12 [5 favorites]


I've always referred to this as "reader's vocabulary," though I'm not finding a lot of support for that via light googling. (Is there a term for a phrase you assumed was commonplace that turns out not to be?)
posted by yarrow at 7:20 AM on August 12 [12 favorites]


I too do this and know it's because I've read the words long before I ever heard them spoken.

Like others, I don't believe there is a term for it. Just know you're not alone!
posted by royalsong at 7:23 AM on August 12


Welcome to the club - says the woman who prounced "misled" as "myzled"! It's very common among people who read a lot and who tend toward visual, rather than auditory, learning styles. I have never heard a word or phrase for it, but lots of people do it. That is why I like internet dictionaries with those click-to-hear auditory pronunciation guides.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 7:23 AM on August 12 [7 favorites]


While I don't have a word specifically for the mispronunciation, it's worth recognizing that there are two kinds of words here:

1) words that we read but are seldom spoken (known as "bookwords"), and
2) words that are said often enough but whose spelling is hard to match with the spoken sounds.

Both are the outcome of English's irregular spelling, but for different reasons. The first we cannot work out how to say based on the writing and that we have never heard spoken, the other that we have heard spoken many times but fail to realize it is the same word we're reading.

If you want a recommendation for a new word to describe failure to bring spelling and pronunciation together, I might suggest "mismatch pronunciation", for the second, and "bookword pronunciation" for the first.
posted by Thing at 7:27 AM on August 12 [1 favorite]


An old friend of mine with a lot more formal education than me once chuckled and told me I had a "reader's vocabulary" after I slaughtered some relatively common but rather academic word and admitted to never having heard it spoken.
posted by erst at 7:29 AM on August 12


My personal best was when I announced to a small group that I was a big David Bowie Af-a-cahn-dee-oh. After a silence, my friend said, "Do you mean aficionado?" and in my shame I replied, "I prefer to pronounce it af-a-cahn-dee-oh." I was about 25.
posted by latkes at 7:29 AM on August 12 [19 favorites]


Before the Harry Potter movie came out, my kids and my friends and I wasted HOURS, I tell you, trying to figure out how to say Hermione.

I understand that Rowling had her explain the pronunciation to Viktor Krum in Book 4 for this very reason.
posted by Shmuel510 at 7:29 AM on August 12 [5 favorites]


Booklish! I even tracked down where I got the term from:

The second October question was "Is there a word to describe someone who can read but can't pronounce words?" (Note to the correspondent who was driven crazy by the example "Follow the gweed at the cathedral": gweed is standing in for guide.) Jake Fey, of Berlin, Germany, wrote, "As an English teacher in Berlin, I often run into this phenomenon. These students may learn to read English, but they definitely do not speak English. Instead, I tell them, they speak Booklish."

Carol Takyi, of Sherwood Park, Alberta, wrote that her husband, "as a young West African arriving to study in the United States in the fifties, learned to pronounce many English words the hard way—for instance, by going to a music store and asking to look at their hee-fees." And Patrick McDougall, of Montreal, Quebec, wants it on record that he had a thirty-seven-year career as a radio announcer despite having pronounced, in his early days on the job, "misled to rhyme with whistled and infrared to rhyme with compared." Surely we've all fallen victim at one time or another—for instance, when faced with Goethe and Hippocrates, Thucydides and Liberace, chimera and paradigm. But what to call the condition? Two readers suggested tome-deaf, and the one who proposed it first was Don Slutes, of Phoenix, so Slutes takes top honors.

posted by Sock Ray Blue at 7:30 AM on August 12 [20 favorites]


"Calliope syndrome" is the proper term for it that I've come across (pronounced cally-ope.) in fact, my gf's dog is named Calliope after it, for reasons which become clear immediately upon meeting the poor misbred beastie.
posted by restless_nomad at 7:40 AM on August 12 [1 favorite]


Just so long as you don't ask for a quickie instead of quiche, I think you are okay. We all do it sometimes. My son has always done it. When he was around 8 or 9, he decided he wanted to act tough and shock me, so he started talking about the mafia a lot, loudly and in public. Only, he pronounced it phonically so it was hilarious. I corrected him 4 years later.
posted by myselfasme at 7:40 AM on August 12 [4 favorites]


As a person who pronounced "Onyx" as "Oinks" for years, I'm glad that there are lovely terms for this - I love Booklish!
posted by anitanita at 7:47 AM on August 12 [1 favorite]


I understand that Rowling had her explain the pronunciation to Viktor Krum in Book 4 for this very reason.

Which made no sense in context, since presumably Viktor had never seen her name in writing (but had heard it on several occasions), so his constant mispronunciations seemed almost deliberate obtuseness. But I certainly appreciated it as a reader.

My own cally-ope was "segue". I pronounced it "seeg" for YEARS before the Segway came out, and I realized "Segway" was a pun on the word. I'm surprised nobody ever corrected me - being a huge Phish fan at the time, I'm sure I said it a lot.
posted by Roommate at 7:51 AM on August 12 [2 favorites]


"N.B. That is not how the word calliope is actually pronounced."

Unless you're referring to the street here in New Orleans, in which case it is indeed CALLY-ope - just one of the many street name shibboleths we keep in stock in order to trip up tourists.
posted by komara at 7:58 AM on August 12 [6 favorites]


I think "booklish" is a great term for it.
My own greatest mispronunciation was bed-raggled. Which is a perfectly contextual error, but still, it cracked my husband right up.
posted by SLC Mom at 8:00 AM on August 12 [2 favorites]


Complicating matters, it appears that while the Muse of heroic poetry is kuh-LIE-oh-pee, the musical instrument can indeed be referred to as cally-ope.
posted by Shmuel510 at 8:02 AM on August 12


[as much fun as sharing anecdotes is, please stick to the question of the name of this phenomenon. Thanks.]
posted by restless_nomad at 8:10 AM on August 12 [2 favorites]


A quote from David Foster Wallace "In my very first seminar in college, I pronounced facade “fakade.” The memory’s still fresh and raw."

If a 'lexicographical luminary' like DWF doesn't use a specific term for it, then I doubt one exists.
posted by guy72277 at 8:23 AM on August 12 [3 favorites]


It's called "spelling pronunciation". If it helps, there are cases where spelling pronunciations have become more common than the original and eventually accepted as standard. The Wikipedia article has a fairly long list of these.

For some additional amusement, you can look up the etymology of the word "zenith". It comes from the Arabic word samt. The modern English spelling and pronunciation are the result a long chain of misspellings and spelling pronunciations (of the misspellings) across multiple languages. (Some sources think the Arabic word comes from the Latin word samita. So there might be an even earlier spelling-facilitated mispronunciation in Arabic, because Arabic spelling usually omits short vowels.)

And, yeah, I do this a lot too.
posted by nangar at 8:37 AM on August 12 [7 favorites]


This is similar to spelling pronunciation, but not exactly the same, since in many of these instances, the word in question could be reasonably pronounced more than one way.
posted by adamrice at 8:39 AM on August 12


I think of the misled as "myzzled" example that Rosie mentioned as the classic example of booklish.
posted by umbú at 8:46 AM on August 12


I have to add, I really like Sokka shot first's term, though I've never heard it before. (And I totally thought that's how it was pronounced.)
posted by nangar at 8:48 AM on August 12


I know one person who called it "horse doover syndrome"; as far as I can tell, people call it after one of their more memorable mispronunciations.
posted by jeather at 8:49 AM on August 12 [2 favorites]


In language studies we call them 'virtuous errors' - made by children and people learning a second language who have misheard, misremembered, misread a word or grammatical construction - although incorrect, there is a logic to the pronunciation or phrasing which is worthy of praise rather than ridicule, hence virtuous. An incredibly widespread error in the UK is saying "expresso" instead of espresso. That one drives me insane on a daily basis.
posted by Hugobaron at 8:53 AM on August 12 [4 favorites]


I read an anecdote long ago about Jerry Brown (currently gov of CA) pronouncing synecdoche with the last syllable of "dosh". The listener, might have been William Safire , wondered how to politely inform him of the error. Brown was not offended, and welcomed the correction.

My daughter, a voracious reader, had this problem with eavesdropper and chauffeur.
posted by SemiSalt at 9:11 AM on August 12 [1 favorite]


> This is similar to spelling pronunciation, but not exactly the same, since in many of these instances, the word in question could be reasonably pronounced more than one way.

Irrelevant—it's still spelling pronunciation, which is the only actual term for it, however cute some of the suggestions are. (When I first realized I was doing this as a kid—I think it was the ever-popular "mizzled"—I developed the habit of looking absolutely every unfamiliar word up and learning the official pronunciation, which is probably responsible for my having dozens of dictionaries and being an editor today.)
posted by languagehat at 9:16 AM on August 12 [4 favorites]


In the one and only linguistics class I took my prof called it a reading pronunciation.
posted by biggreenplant at 9:38 AM on August 12 [1 favorite]


Is there a linguistics term for this type of thing?

If you separate the end result (a specific mispronunciation) from the circumstances such as using words nobody really uses (says this formerly lexiphanic nerd), you will find lots of sciency terms depending on what was mispronounced, such as metathesis, epenthesis, syncope, malapropism, and so on.
posted by rada at 9:47 AM on August 12 [2 favorites]


Roommate, I too learned that "segue" was "segway" and not "seeg" only after the Segway came out, but I insist on pronouncing it "seeg" anyway because it seems so much more right.

I've always called this "nerd pronunciation." It's best when you can pretend you're mispronouncing on purpose to be "cute", the way my in-laws pronounce Target as if it were French, and say "smashed potatoes" instead of "mashed."
posted by audacity at 10:49 AM on August 12 [3 favorites]


I call them read-only words (but obliterating all normal / technical meanings of "readonly"). Because I'd only ever read them.

Slough (the marsh, not the shedding), Samaritan (I pronounced this 'sam-RI-shun', so you could even call this a misspelling pronunciation, by omitting an a and inserting an i after the t), Sean (the name)...
posted by batter_my_heart at 11:34 AM on August 12


I'd agree with adamrice that this isn't exactly what's usually meant by "spelling pronunciation": in canonical spelling-pronunciation cases (e.g. "often", "forehead"), the spelling points clearly one way, but that happens not to be the way the word is traditionally pronounced. That's not really true of some of these cases (e.g. "debacle").

I like batter_my_heart's "read-only words".

I won't tell y'all how I used to pronounce fuchsia.
posted by hoist with his own pet aardvark at 12:16 PM on August 12


> In the one and only linguistics class I took my prof called it a reading pronunciation.

Now that I think about it, that's a better term and I will try to remember it.
posted by languagehat at 12:44 PM on August 12 [1 favorite]


Oh god this yes.

I pronounced "draught" as "drought" until like two years ago. This would be less embarrassing if I didn't drink so much beer.

The audio pronunciation on m-w.com is a big help.
posted by echocollate at 3:19 PM on August 12 [1 favorite]


I've heard it called the reader's curse.
posted by southern_sky at 5:31 PM on August 12


see also, Germans attempting to pronounce "squirrel"
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 7:02 PM on August 12


I can't believe this hasn't been posted yet.

The Chaos by Gerard Nolst Trenité is a classic English poem containing about 800 of the worst irregularities in English spelling and pronunciation.

I so admire people who learn to Speak English late in life who are adept at pronunciation from the written word. It is a bastard language!
posted by lalochezia at 7:49 AM on August 13


Oddly enough, I remember a girl in my high school who knew the word "kay oss" as a spoken word, and knew the word "chaos" (which she pronounced "tshauss") only from reading it. Never put the two together.
posted by adamrice at 9:35 AM on August 13


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