You say tomato. Or maybe to-mah-to. But how do you say prerogative, kibosh or Dr. Seuss?
We tend to mispronounce words because we've heard them wrong or because we've never heard them at all.
"I think that people often read words without hearing them pronounced and make up their own pronunciation in their head, especially when people are young," says grammar author Mignon Fogarty, better known as the word expert Grammar Girl. "For example, if you're 12 years old and you read 'hyperbole' in a book, and your friends never use that word, you might conclude it's pronounced 'hyper-bowl' and never realized you have it wrong."
We've rounded up lots of words that many of us tend to say incorrectly. See how you fare. Take note, however: Many of these have been around so long that they've been swallowed up by the English language — so long that dictionaries have grudgingly accepted them as secondary pronunciations.
When you put the "kuh-BOSH" on things, you're doing it all wrong. The correct pronunciation is "KY-bosh." Word historians aren't really sure where the term originated, but it was first used in writing in 1836 by Charles Dickens in "Sketches by Boz."
The master of children's rhymes, Theodore Geisel, took his pen name after his mother, Henrietta Seuss. He pronounced it the German way — rhyming with voice — but realized Americans naturally read his name as "soose." But Geisel (pictured at right) didn't bother with corrections when he realized it wasn't bad to be phonically associated with another strong name in children's literature, Mother Goose.
Alexander Liang, one of Geisel's fellow writers at Dartmouth, made a rhyme about it:
You’re wrong as the deuce/And you shouldn’t rejoice/
If you’re calling him Seuss/He pronounces it Soice (or Zoice).
The stress is supposed to be on the first syllable so it sounds like "AFF-lu-ent," but so many people emphasize the second syllable that dictionaries have thrown in the towel and "a-FLU-ent" has become a secondary accepted pronunciation since about the mid-'70s or early-'80s. But that doesn't make it OK, writes Charles Harrington Elster in "The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations."
"Don't fall for these shallow, pseudosophisticated, upstart pronunciations, which I suspect have been foisted upon us by grasping yuppies and egotistical boomers. Hold out for first-syllable stress in affluence and affluent."
Ever since Run DMC rapped about "My Adidas" in the '80s — and before — Americans have come up with a unique pronunciation for the sporty brand. While the rest of the world says "AH-dee-das" (with the emphasis on the first syllable), Americans say "ah-DEE-dus" (accenting the second).
Who knows why Americans came up with their own pronunciation of the German brand, said David Fertig of the Society of German Linguistics, speaking to Business Insider: "A lot of guesswork is involved when English speakers encounter new words first in writing and have to try to figure out how to pronounce them."
Even though the root word here is "prestige," the preferred pronunciation is "pre-STI-jus," not "pre-STEE-jus" with the long "e" sound.
Try showing up at a Boston basketball game cheering for the "Keltics." You'll be laughed right out of the arena. Yet the hard "k" sound was the original way to say it. The pronunciation evolved and now most major dictionaries list both versions as correct — but the hard "k" Keltic as preferred. Except in Boston.
There is only one "r" in sherbet, yet so many people insist on calling it "sherbert." But this one may be a lost cause. Try ordering rainbow "sher-bit" at the ice cream parlor and the kid behind the counter is just going to look at you funny.
According to a Google nGram graph that looks at words used in print, one in six people uses the spelling "sherbert." So if they're spelling it wrong, they're likely saying it wrong, too.
How boring and uninteresting — banal, even — when people say things the wrong way. It's "buh-NAHL," not "BAY-nul."
There's something kind of pretentious-sounding when people talk about their "Aw-dee." There's also something wrong. It's "Ow-dee."
You're not alone if you give this troublemaking word an extra syllable. In fact, a poll by Oxford Dictionaries found that more people spell this word "mischievious," than correctly. So they likely mispronounce it too. We tend to drop an extra "I" in there, probably because we're used to words that end in "ious" like "devious" or "pretentious," say the folks at Oxford. But it's "MIS-chuh-vus" — not "mis-CHEE-vee-us."
Don't do this to someone for saying a word wrong. Meaning "to criticize sharply," lambaste is often mispronounced "lamb-BAST." However, think of it as basting a lamb. The way to say it is "lam-BASTE."
Whether you're talking the restaurant or the jalapeno, there is a little bit of disagreement about whether it should be “chi-POAT-lay" or “chee-POAT-lay” (the long "e" sound making it more Spanish), but it definitely shouldn't be "chi-pole-tay" or "chi-potl." In fact, the restaurant chain wanted to get off on the right foot when it premiered in the U.K. last year. It launched an ad campaign that helped the British with pronunciation — with the tagline, "Delicious however you say it."
It's your prerogative to say words incorrectly, but this one should be easy. Say the letters in the right order and you have "PRE-rog-uh-tiv," not "PUR-rog-uh-tiv." Blame Bobby Brown.
Some words sound just like they look, and then there's comptroller. This word, which means someone who is in charge of a company or organization's financial accounts, actually sounds like "controller." The "mpt" part is just there for looks.
This one depends. If you're getting ready to paint and you take the time to put on that bottom coat, then you're applying "pry-mer." But if you're reading an intro how-to piece, it's a "prim-mer."
No one can really and truly understand how the Electoral College works, so it's no wonder we can't pronounce it right. The emphasis is on the second, not the third, syllable.
Whether you're talking about your computer's memory or hidden items, don't be tempted to add an extra syllable to sound all French. This sounds like "cash," not "cash-ay." Some people confuse the word with "cachet," which has the two-syllable pronunciation and means having great prestige.
There's a reason this all-star condiment is nicknamed "mayo." Don't drop that "o" and say "man-naise. It's "MAY-o-naise."
It says it right there on every container — "fa-yeh" — but there are plenty of people who make this Greek yogurt brand rhyme with "page." FYI, "fage" is a Greek verb that means "to eat."
Fortunately for most of us, this one doesn't come up all that often in everyday conversation. Not surprisingly, the word that means "deception or trickery" can be very tricky to say. The beginning "ch" actually sounds like "sh" as in "chef."
Seriously. Did you know there are times you should say "thuh" and times you should say "thee"? "Grammar Girl" Fogarty says it depends on how you pronounce the word that follows it. If the word that follows "the" starts with a consonant sound, you say it as "thuh" — "thuh" cheese or "thuh" remote. If the word following "the" starts with a vowel sound, you say it like "thee" — "thee" MRI or "thee" envelope.
Just kidding. It really does rhyme with "spiky."
Related on MNN:
- Say a word over and over and see what happens
- 5 ways your brain plays tricks on you
- Does the language you speak influence how you think?