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Words We Mispronounce Because We’ve Only Ever Read Them

Kristen McQuinn

Staff Writer

Kristen McQuinn is a medievalist who dreams of reading more, writing more, and traveling more while being the best single mama by choice she possibly can be. By day, she can be found working with English teachers at the University of Phoenix, where she also teaches the occasional class on mythology, Shakespeare, or Brit lit. Sometimes she updates even her own blog. Follow her on Twitter:@KristenMcQuinn or  Twitter: @KristenMcQuinn

Do you have a story about a word you mispronounced because you had only ever seen it in print before you had to say it aloud? Funny, embarrassing, horrifying… I’m sure we’ve all had a moment like that. For me, that first truly embarrassing moment came in college, though there were plenty of times before that where I had mispronounced a word that I had only read previously. Below, a few Rioters share their experiences with the phenomenon sometimes known as reader’s vocabulary, booklish, or just plain biffed.*

Quay. NOW I know it is pronounced KEY, and maybe I should have figured it out before I did. But I didn’t and now I’m scarred. I had read this word I don’t know how many times. I knew what it was and what it was supposed to look like should I ever find myself at one. Given a few very descriptive passages, I even knew probably what they should smell like. However, the first time I had to say the word aloud was when I was in a class and my professor chose me to read a passage containing the word. The class was Yeats and the Celtic Revival and my professor was not above tormenting the undergrads on occasion. I got up and read that passage like a champ, including a few of the Irish words we had learned up to that point. Then I came to quay. “Kway,” I said, and was immediately made aware of my error when the professor started howling. I never understood the need to mock people for mispronouncing words, and definitely not in public, and CERTAINLY not a person who does not care to be put on the spot in front of other humans as he well knew was the case with me. I really don’t like quays anymore, I don’t care how pretty some of them might be.

Bursar. Back in college, there were two offices on the first floor of the university Admin Building that you’d have to go in periodically: the Registrar to the south and the Bursar to the north. Despite the fact that I was a reasonably intelligent 18-year-old, I had never encountered the word “bourse” (in either the sense of “purse/moneybags” or “stock exchange”), let alone “bursar”. But I quickly figured out what they did, because they were where I had to take and/or pick up checks. I just never quite figured out how to pronounce it. Since they were literally right across the hall from the Registrar and they both ended with “-ar”, I assumed they rhymed. Nope. For those not in the know, while the “-ar” in “registrar” has a nice pirate-y sound to it, “bursar” doesn’t, instead rhyming with “cursor”. I managed to go around campus for an entire year referring to the office as the “burSAR” before I said it to my girlfriend at the time, who practically died of laughter before telling me how the word is meant to be said. So, moral here, kids, is make sure you know how to pronounce words before using them with your significant others, or they will mock you mercilessly.

Adjacent. I’m not sure if I’d never said the word out loud, or no one bothered to correct me, or possibly that I said it so confidently that people assumed it was an alternate pronunciation, but it took my mom saying in exasperation “It’s adJAYcent not adJUHcent!” over a board game for me to realize that I’ve been saying it wrong my whole life. I continued to explain the rules of this game, incorrect pronunciation and all, driving my mother to extreme annoyance. What can I say? I maintain that adjuhcent just sounds more natural than adjaycent. It’s not my fault everyone else got it wrong.

Colonel. HOW IS ANYONE SUPPOSED TO KNOW THIS IS PRONOUNCED LIKE “KER-NUL?” Well, you could find out when your snooty prep school freshman English class laughs at you when you’re reading something aloud. (You read it as “colonial” as in “Colonial Donuts”–-a delicious donut shop near your house.) But even if that happens, you’ll probably always forget how to pronounce it because how the hell do you get ker-nul from colonel? (I looked it up while writing this and came across this article which claims to explain how the pronunciation came to be. The explanation is much less satisfying than, say, a donut.)

Faux: I love animals, always have. When we visited a craft store one day, I wanted to make it clear that I loved the idea of faux fur – except, only having read the word, I didn’t know how to pronounce it. Fox fur, it turns out, is very different that faux fur, even though they look like they should be pronounced the same. Needless to say, when I declared I loved “fox” fur and would like to use some in my arts-and-crafts, I received a slightly horrified look from my mother… who teases me about it to this day.

Arkansas: When I was a kid, I had a lengthy, high-volume argument with the rest of my family about this one (in memory; in reality, it probably lasted five minutes with only me shouting). In any case, this was a textbook example of being misled by textbooks. Why are children allowed to proceed for years with sensible beliefs like “look both ways before crossing the street” and “Kansas can only be pronounced one way” if maturing into hard, unforgiving adulthood will pull the rug out from under us? What else is everyone keeping from me? Have I been saying “genner” wrong too? Oh, it’s john-rah. Is that how they pronounce it in Arkan-SAW? As in, I Arkan-saw the best years of my life whittled away on sick jokes played on children. Innocence lost like dust caught in a beam of light, noticed for an instant then vanished forever. Hold me.

And to round this off, a co-worker of mine heard what I was working on and wanted in on the action. He asked to remain anonymous, so we’ll just use his initials: TBG. He’s the raddest guy ever. No one else at work will talk to me about Star Trek, or can even come close to keeping up with me when it comes to discussing the ways in which sci-fi is the perfect medium for addressing a variety of moral and ethical issues. He wrote the below:

One of my cousins always loved writing stories and having readings, even as a kid. She’s several years older than I am, but I still tried to keep up with her. One year, I thought I’d try to impress her with a story I’d written and came to a part where the character would rendooveus with the bad guy and trick him into giving up the gold and the girl. She looked at me like I’d sprouted horns and said, “What?” I was confused and she kept asking me to reread that sentence and finally asked, “What is rendooveus?” I was surprised she didn’t know because she always knew more words than I did, so I was excited to be able to tell her it was a fancy French word for when people would meet up somewhere. She rolled her eyes and said, “I think you mean rendezvous,” with all the disdain a teenage girl can throw at a younger, annoying male cousin. She reminded me of that incident when she won the Pushcart Award.

*This doesn’t include things like accents or regional dialects, because those are not the same thing as flat out mispronouncing a word. A dialect or accent might make it sound different, but doesn’t bring a whole new level of meaning to the word. Quiche, for example, is not pronounced quickie, which is my favorite mispronunciation that I learned while researching for this post. I really wish quiche was pronounced quickie.