Words I Can Spell but Mispronounce

A couple years ago I was enjoying a small family reunion with my two older brothers. We were playing a card game, and for some reason I used the word chimera in the conversation. Unfortunately, I failed to take into consideration three things:

  1. I had (to my recollection) never heard the word spoken but had only read it.
  2. My brothers are both smarter than me.
  3. My brothers would never hesitate to ridicule me (or, to be fair, each other).

I think I used the word correctly, but I pronounced it “shimmer-uh.” They leaped. They pounced. They swooped in for the kill.

“Is that how it’s pronounced?” asked one, suppressing a smile.

“I don’t think so,” said the other, strangely happy.

I blushed, I’m sure. A thoroughly and devastatingly abusive conversation between them followed. Since then, I don’t think I’ve used the word in speech, but I will probably never forget how to pronounce it: ki-MEER-uh (though I still occasionally put the emphasis on the first syllable).

I’ve heard (or read) that a person shouldn’t be embarrassed at mispronouncing a word known only from reading, as it’s an indication that you’re well read, not stupid. My brothers apparently never encountered that helpful bit of wisdom. 

Unfortunately for me, chimera isn’t the only word I mispronounce (or struggle to remember the correct pronunciation). Here are a few others:

  1. Risible

It looks like it should be pronounced “RYE-zi-buhl,” right? (See what I did there?) But pronouncing the word “RYE-zi-buhl,” it turns out, is “RIZZ-uh-buhl,” which means something ludicrous or laughter-inducing.  

  1. Hegemony

Hi-JEM-uh-nee? HEJ-uh-moh-nee? I can never remember, probably because either pronunciation is acceptable. But to my ears, neither sounds quite right, so I usually split the difference and end up in a verbal no-man’s-land.

  1. Pedagogy

See, I know that pedagogue is pronounced “PED-uh-gog.” Easy peasy. But that makes me want to say, “Ped-uh-GOG-ee,” which is wrong. I have to pause, do a little self-pedagoging (pronounce that any way you want), and remind myself that pedagogy is pronounced “PED-uh-goh-jee.” Golly gee.

  1. Idyll

This one trips me up because I watch a lot of British television. Over there it’s pronounced to rhyme with “biddle.” But I do most of my talking in American English, so I have to take a deep breath and make it rhyme with “idol.” But how in the world do Brits pronounce “idyllic?”

  1. Ignominy

Having survived the ignominy of my brothers’ ridicule, I’m slightly more aware of this word’s pronunciation: either IG-nuh-min-ee or ig-NOM-uh-nee, according to the dictionary. But that second choice just reminds me of The Muppets singing “Mahna Mahna,” so I’ll do my best to stick with IG-nuh-min-ee.

There’s my confession. I’m sure there are more, but these six (counting chimera, even though I doubt that I’ll ever mispronounce it again) are those I encounter most often.

What about you? Are there words you habitually mispronounce? Do tell.  

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by Steve Laube

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