I looked it up

On May 11, 2010 by Eden M. Kennedy

When I was in second grade I read “cousin” as “cow-sin” and I hid in the coat room fighting back tears, trying to figure out where Mrs. O’Neill was finding “cuzzin” in my borrowed Dick and Jane.

And until last night’s Antiques Roadshow I didn’t know how to say chalcedony. I’d only ever read the word, so in my head I pronounced it “CHAL-seh-doe-nee,” but apparently to gem specialists and lovers of spoken English alike, it’s “chal-SED-nee” (or more to the Greek, perhaps, “kal-SED-nee“). I spent the rest of yesterday evening and a good chunk of this morning distractedly trying to reconfigure the neural cow paths in my brain to accommodate this new and vital information. I’ll have you know.

And like the other day, when I was wondering whether licking the chocolate frosting off a dull chef’s knife wouldn’t be the act of an untrustworthy woman, I felt myself eerily cautioned from beyond the grave by H. W. Fowler:

The English speaking world may be divided into (1) those who neither know nor care what a split infinitive* is; (2) those who do not know, but care very much; (3) those who know and condemn; (4) those who know and approve; (5) those who know and distinguish.

1. Those who neither know nor care are the vast majority, and are a happy folk, to be envied by most of the minority classes. ‘To really understand’ comes readier to their lips and pens than ‘really to understand’; they see no reason why they should not say it (small blame to them, seeing that reasons are not their critics’ strong point), and they do say it, to the discomfort of some among us, but not to their own.

2. To the second class, those who do not know but do care, who would as soon be caught putting knives in their mouths as splitting an infinitive but have only hazy notions of what constitutes that deplorable breach of etiquette, this article is chiefly addressed.

*It strikes me as very funny that you can substitute the word “mommybloggers” for “split infinitive” and it makes a whole new set of sense.

And I’m terribly sorry, but if you want to read another 1,500 words about split infinitives you’ll have to find a copy of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, Second Edition, 1965, because as someone who’s wantonly eaten peanut butter straight from the jar using a Swiss Army knife, I’ve never been able to read further than that.



35 Responses to “I looked it up”

  • Cow-sins, kal-SED-nee, cow-paths, split infinitives. You’re too funny. Promise you’ll never quit blogging.

  • Online dictionaries, and their ability to pronounce words out loud for me, have been the best thing since sliced cheese.

    I once pronounced “fruition” “fru-ti-tion.” Whoops.

  • I recently learned how to properly pronounce “chagrin”, which I had always pronounced (in my head) as CHAR-gn, vs. sha-GRIN. I’m…special.

  • For a long time, I thought “infrared” was the past tense of “infrare.” And I used to know someone else (may she rest in peace) who had the same idea about “misled.”

  • I had a friend who pronounced “misled” as “MISSLEd” for years.

  • I thought that “novel” was pronounced “NO-vuhl” for much longer than one might expect, and my sister caused a stir at 18 by brazenly bringing up the word “pennis” at dinner with my maiden aunties.

    But that’s beside the point: I want to thank you for the phrase “neural cow paths.”

  • I take these kinds of mispronunciations as signs of a good reader. I have a handful of words that I know the meaning of, but can’t pronounce – because I only run across them in books!

  • As a kid I thought epitome was EPIH-tome (like it being the best book on the subject).

    When people talked about something being the e-pit-oh-mee, I had no clue what they were talking about.

    I had similar issues with the Greek figure Antigone (you can guess how I pronounced that).

    (I like Molly’s explanation, but for years I thought those multi-night movies on TV were miniseries … like miseries … I have no excuse for that one, I heard it more than I saw it spelled.)

  • I still cannot properly pronounce the word ‘similarly’. So embarassing. Split infinitives and pb on a knife…love it!

  • I am fully to blame for the fact that Jackson says BREFkast instead of breakfast.

  • Super funny post. I would say most marketers fall into category 2 re: mommybloggers.

  • My most embarrassing mispronunciation was: Naked.

    I said it Nigh-kid for a really long time and I still have no idea why.

  • Mine was taffeta, which I pronounced to rhyme with feta cheese. Which came to my friends’ attention during prom season. In the 80s. Sigh.

    I’ve been pronouncing chalcedony the same way you have. Thanks for the tip. Neural cow paths – awesome.

  • This hits very close to home. (Well, except the part about the knife.) I was screaming at my computer because Lexulous wouldn’t accept “viz”. I had no idea it was an abbreviation, or that it isn’t spoken anywhere near the way it looks. If I’ve heard it, I had no idea the person was saying the word I read phonetically.

  • I think licking chocolate frosting off a dull knife is the act of a fascinating woman. Though I would feel like I need to point out to her that you can get more frosting with a large spoon.

    It applies to split infinitives, mommybloggers, and perhaps knowledge in general. That Fowler, hey? Not as accessible as Garner, but both of them so wise beyond their pages.

  • You just need to make sure the slice-y side points AWAY from your face…

  • As an English teacher who truly hates the world today and is regularly grammatically incorrect and perfectly ok with it: I truly loved this post and it made my day.

    And not only that, I smile because when I eat peanut butter right out of the jar, its usually with my fingers.

  • My biggest surprise in the last five years word-wise was the true pronunciation of indefatigable. If you do a poll, very few people have heard it outloud.

  • Once, I read “misled” as rhyming with “grisled”.

    Which is bad enough, but I also said, out loud, “What the fuck is mizzled?”

  • I hate grammar, now more than ever, but you teach me about mortality. Whether I learn anything or not is another question. The thing about grammar and mortality is that if you live in a culture not your own they are both WAY more irritating. No, that’s probably not true, mortality can’t be ‘more’ irritating, but I’m not going to budge on the grammar.

  • I STILL have to remind myself how to pronounce pinochle, since I spent many years of my life using my own creative pronunciation! It’s a little like Chronic Lyricosis, when someone sings a song with the proper lyrics and for a moment, it sounds foreign, until you merge your wrong lyrics with the right ones. I usually go back to singing the wrong way :)

  • That was some good writing right there. (Yours, not Fowler’s.) The whole knives in mouths analogy vastly improved my morning.

  • Good GOD!! You mean I’ve been splitting infinitives since prior to 7th grade and no one SAID anything?? Crappy Jr. High. I should have known it when they made a music nerd like me a substitute cheerleader.

  • I mispronounced glowered for many years. As many have pointed out, I’d read it a jillion times and always in my head it was like glow with and ered on the end. But my mother pointed out it, it’s actually gl-OW-ered with a short o, plus a w pronounced as you would if you’d just kicked a table leg with a bare foot.

    I’d also been mispronouncing hegemony. I thought it was HEDGE-eh-mony. It’s not, it’s huh-GEH-minny. Which I don’t like because now it makes me think of Jiminy Cricket.

    I would like to say that I consulted the pronunciation experts at Merriam-Webster online (www.m-w.com) on that chalcedony and they had it pronounced both ways.

  • I can’t see the word Armageddon without hearing ar-MEG-uh-don in my head ever since a friend told me that’s how he pronounced it as a kid. It sounds much better that way!

  • Can I also include my most recent pronunciation revelation? I was watching something on BBC or Masterpiece Theater and realized I’d always, in my head, mispronounced “blackguard.” It leaves me wishing I could use the word casually in a conversation.

  • In our house we STILL call the phone the Pah-HOH-nee. My now 17-year old confessed not too long ago that she was in third grade before she realized what sound “ph” made. How could a kid who could read a chapter book in kindergarten not understand about a dipthong? So THAT’s what they mean by “comprehension!”

  • Wait, what? “chal-SED-nee”? That can’t be right, can it?

    I’m an English PhD student. and one of my favorite fellow students constantly mispronounces words. He’s very smart and very well read, so I know it’s because he has read these words and never heard them spoken. It’s kind of adorable, but I wonder if I should correct him?

    To MJB: I only know how to pronounce “indefatigable” because of Horatio Hornblower.

  • It’s got nothing to do with pronunciation but one of my favorite Fish Called Wanda quotes is when Wanda is telling Otto just how stupid he is (Aristotle was not Belgian! The central message of Buddhism is not “Every man for himself!”) and she ends with: “Those are all mistakes. I looked them up.”

  • dipthong == thong worn by someone with diphtheria

  • That mommyblogger connection is awesome. ;)

    There are many, many words on my list of “I can write them and use them but I cannot say them”.

  • I was at school with a girl who said Grot Ess Queue for ‘grotesque’.

    Personally, I went off the word ‘inclement’ in 2001 after realising it wasn’t pronounced INK-le-ment. I’ve come to love it for what it is now.

  • I once worked for a small town lawyer who was totally thrilled to have an English MA working for him so he could finally get all of his questions of grammar answered. He also put a great deal of effort into speaking grammatically, and I was touched by this unnecessary manner of his. I could tell that it didn’t come naturally to him, and that grammatical speech was something that he reserved for his interaction with me. I often thought that if we weren’t both married to other people, our mutual fascination with grammar could ignite a passion between us. The lawyer also held a considerable position in local politics and was often quoted in the paper. One day, he, another lawyer and I were at my desk, and he asked me for the paper. Teasingly, I responded, “This one? Where you split an infinitive on the front page?” I still get tingly when I remember how he blushed and smiled and how the look in his eye communicated how happy he was to share this private joke with me.

  • Spa-TU-la mystified me almost until adolescence. But then I was in high school before I figured out why so many streets were named Frontage Road. I had thought that the Frontage family was a REALLY big deal to be memorialized with all those street signs.