The Friday Fillip: Catching the Misles

Imagine my chagrin: there I am in a linguistics class in second or third year university and for the first time in my life I pronounce the word “ubiquitous”—only I don’t. What I say is more or less “you-bi-QUEE-shus.” Well.

It’s that way with some words, even for those with big vocabs. Written and spoken English are two different languages, after all, and we don’t always get to say what we see in cosy company. That’s where “misles” comes in. It’s not hard to imagine someone pronouncing “misled” as “MYzld,” particularly someone learning English. But even the best of the best get off on the wrong foot, so to speak. Which is the lead to a great column in The Chronicle of Higher Education by linguist Geoffrey [go pronounce that if it's new to you] Pullum, he of Language Log fame. In Pullum’s opening a distinguished phonologist saw “biopic” as rhyming with “myopic”.

Ever the scientist, Pullum says:

Errors of this kind—private misanalyses of written forms that yield phonological errors if and when the word has to be spoken—need a technical name. They are not to be confused with other types of word error like folk etymologies, malapropisms, eggcorns, or mondegreens. I have learned, however, that people interested in English usage already have an established name for the words in question, which may suffice: They’re known as misles.

What really makes his column fun, apart from its giving you the chance to fess up here about your own misanalyses, is that there’s a list of 30 or 40 words just begging to be… analyzed wrong. Barroom. Bootheels. Coworker (a personal favourite). Manslaughter (never thought of it this way). Moped. Et cetera.

So go. Read. And recite. Which is not pronounced like Recife.

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Comments

  1. I believe your article is a perfect set-up for the following legal news item from the ABA Journal: Law Prof’s Donation gets him Naming Rights for Harvard Law Restroom.

    I was already planning to quote your post in my blog, but finding these two in the same morning is too serendipitous to let pass!

  2. Vehement is not spoken with the same emphasis as behemoth.

    My most embarrassing moment, however, was being the first to speak in 1st year criminal class, when I mispronounced indictable.

  3. I’ve done the indictable one too. I don’t doubt that more than a few folks have been tripped up by that one.