Mispronunciation

September 13, 2020 ☞ Word of the day

Mispronouncing words is a marker of intelligence. People smarter than I have bungled terms like assuage (uh-swayj) and flautist (flou-tist). I’ve seen a Carnegie Mellon graduate get banal (ba-nall) very wrong and we all saw a Yale grad stumble with nuclear (noo-clear). I say it’s a sign of intelligence though, because its largely readers who make this mistake.

Reading is the best way to learn new words. In an hour, you can harvest more words from paper than you can aloud. And thanks to editing you can (mostly) trust that a word is being used correctly in print. I’m hella dubious of words I hear out loud. Folks love to spout fun to say mouthfuls like truculent (truck-yoo-lent) and capacious (cup-ay-shuss) without understanding what they mean. It’s loose lips that turned literally and peruse into mirror images of themselves. To coin an adage: do as I write, not as I say.

But printed English has a failing: it does not indicate how a word is pronounced. (This is wild if you think about it.) It leaves the task up to your brain, and when your ears are away your mind does play.

The mispronunciation of a word acquired from reading is a real treat, because of the way those phonemes (fo-neems) burn themselves into your brain. Like the way a radio DJ’s voice is forever associated with a “Top 40” track you recorded off the radio onto cassette (wassup my ‘80s crew). It’s probably the same phenomenon that makes you favor the cover version of a song to its original, so long as you heard it first.

I will always hear “ep-ee-toam” when I see epitome (epit-oh-me). How could you not? The challenge is not saying it out loud, which I really want to do.

I came across scintillating in the seventh grade and I was immediately “skin-tillated.”

1620s, from Latin scintillatus, past participle of scintillare “to sparkle, glitter, gleam, flash,” from scintilla “spark” (see scintilla). Etymonline

Sparkle! Glitter! Gleam! Flash! I was determined to use it as soon as I could, but my first attempt was within earshot of an adult who immediately called out my mistake: “You mean sin-till-ay-ting?” Soft C? Ho hum. I must have looked as disappointed as I felt, so the grown-up offered: “But your mispronunciation is interesting too.”

I agree with most of that consolation, but I’m not ready to admit that it’s a mispronunciation. How can you talk of sparkle and glitter without a smidge of that voiceless velar stop?

The pedant in me won’t ever say them out loud, but there’s a long list of words my mind can’t help but echo in its own garbled way.