Thursday, July 15, 2010

Getting it wrong -- language edition

There's a huge thread (over 800 comments) on AskMetafilter about this question:

What in life did it take you a surprisingly long time to realize you've been doing wrong all along?
A lot of the answers have to do with language, especially mispronunciations resulting from only seeing a word written -- or from seeing and hearing a word, but not realizing that it's the same word. Some of the more common examples seem to be "awry" (the second syllable sounds like "eye," not "ee"), "segue" (two syllables, not one), "victuals" (not pronounced how it looks), "infrared" (three syllables, doesn't rhyme with "scared"), and "beck and call" (not "beckon call"). A couple of them seem to be based on dyslexia: "larynx" (people pronounce the last syllable as "nix") and "remuneration" (people mix up the "m" and "n").

This mistake is surprisingly common:
Definition of 'erstwhile' - I thought it meant strong and steadfast, instead it means former. (link)
In senior year of high school, I had a logophilic friend who gave me a copy of his yearbook photo. On the back of the photo, he wrote a nice note with a pen and signed it: "Your erstwhile friend, [his name]." When I pointed out the correct definition of the word to him, he added a superscript "1" after "erstwhile," then wrote a footnote at the bottom: "1. And current!"

Here are some more language-related realizations:
I was in my teens when I realized that those "hors d'oeuvres" that I read about and those "ordervs" I heard people talk about were one and the same. (link)

I thought Chanukah and Hanukkah were two different holidays, and that I'd just never heard the first one spoken since I'd never heard anyone say CHanukah. One day I was in line at the grocery store where I'd shopped for years. The person in line in front of me had a loaf of challah bread on the belt. The cashier said "Man! Isn't our HALLA bread just the best?!? And I immediately said to myself "OMG Chanukah is Hanukah!" I was 25. (link)

I didn't know what "penultimate" meant until recently. I thought it was a synonym for "ultimate". Oh the shame when a friend corrected me. (link)

A few years back I learned that the proper spelling of dilemma does not have a silent n. Up until that moment I was 100% stake-my-life-on-it certain it was spelled dilemna. (link)

Macrame and macabre are unrelated words. (link)

I was nearly 30 before I realized that my parents had been talking a Wodehousian language during my youth and that normal people didn't refer to each other as "old bean" or "the mammal" or share a refreshing snort before dinner. (link)

I was about 25 when I figured out that Soup Du Jour wasn't actually a certain style of soup. (link)

I was probably 12 before I realized that people on the radio singing to "my baby" weren't singing to their infants. (link)

NEXT: More things gotten wrong.


Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

As your mother knows, I had the same "dilemna" conception (not misconception!), and I still do. The word used to be spelled with a silent n and it's not anymore. That is, I originally inhabited a universe in which it's spelled with a silent n, and at some point I switched tracks, imperceptibly, into an alternate universe where it's spelled with a double m. The proof was that in my youth, people used to *say* "dilem-na" to be funny. (Occasional individuals here and there shared the same experience.) What other differences there are between the two universes -- if there are any -- is not known. I used to assume, dramatist fashion, that the switch had taken me into a more dangerous universe, but now I think it may well have been the opposite.

John Althouse Cohen said...

I knew you'd post a comment about "dilemna"!

I used to have the same misconception.

I remember a bunch of us talking about this at a family reunion.

Jason (the commenter) said...

I only learned how to tie my shoe laces correctly this year.

Ann Althouse said...

I remember a Lorrie Moore riff somewhere about how she was disappointed when she realized that Jacques Cousteau and Jean Cocteau had nothing to do with each other.

El Presidente said...

Jacques Cousteau looked better in a speedo.

Anthony said...

I was well into high school before I realized that ridiculous was actually not spelled "rediculous" (which said as much about my pronunciation of the word as it does my spelling).

Of course there's the whole nuclear pronunciation, which, although attributed to President Bush, had been mispronounced by several presidents before him, so I read. It just goes to show that even Presidents can go much of their adult professional lives without being corrected or figuring out the "proper" way to say/spell a word. Fun topic.

John Althouse Cohen said...

Bill Clinton also pronounced it "nuke-you-ler." (Obama pronounces it "nuke-lee-er," as you can hear starting at 1:55 of this clip.) Of course, if so many people "mispronounce" it (especially people in high office who are speaking in very formal settings), that raises the question of whether it actually is a mispronunciation or an acceptable variant. Mispronunciations that are based on reading a word without hearing it pronounced by anyone else -- like "segue" as one syllable, or "infrared" rhyming with "scared" -- are the ones that are most clearly mispronunciations. Bush, Clinton, and others are doing the opposite: their pronunciation of "nuclear" has less connection to the spelling than the "nuke-lee-er" pronunciation. If they're aware that some people pronounce it as it's spelled, but they simply feel more comfortable saying "nuke-you-ler" (which would be understandable since "ular" is a more common ending in the English language: "molecular," "particular," etc.), perhaps we shouldn't consider it an error.

knox said...

For a long time I misused "nonplussed" all the time. I thought it described when a person took something in stride, i.e., "She was nonplussed by the uproar." But it actually means kind of the opposite. I've heard an awful lot of people misuse it in a similar way.

Jennifer said...

I thought misled and mizz-uhled were different words for a very long time. I can't pinpoint the moment when I realized misled was not pronounced mizz-uhled, but I know that I read it as such for a very long time.

Ralph L said...

Pres. Carter mispronounced "nuclear", and he'd been a nuclear engineer.

Anonymous said...

I want to know more about the "old bean" talk.

John Althouse Cohen said...

kcom: You could ask her!