Just how dumb can you be? Do tell.

John Kelly
Columnist August 5, 2012

I stuck my carving knife into the roasted chicken and recoiled in horror. What sort of foul monster was this? It was like no chicken I had encountered before.

My blade scraped against a bony carapace, as if someone had stretched puckered skin over a turtle shell. Where was the tasty meat?

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

And then I realized that the chicken was upside down. I was attempting to cut into its back, not its breast. Before she put it in the oven, my 19-year-old daughter Beatrice had put the dang bird in the roasting pan the wrong way up.

I sighed and thought: Just how stupid is my daughter, anyway?

And then I thought: You are a bad parent. You did not show Beatrice the correct way to position a chicken in a roasting pan. Who knows what other gaps she has in her education?

Beatrice has cooked chickens before, but I guess they were foolproof, automatic chickens, the ones with the little pop-up button. With those, you don’t need to know where a chicken’s breast is, just that the button should go face-up. They’re like the battery in your digital camera: They can only go in one way.

The Case of the Upside-Down Chicken was only the first of several troubling recent incidents that made me question the intelligence of my children and my fitness as a father.

I was talking with Beatrice — about what, I can’t remember — when I used the word “nap,” as in: “The nap of that fabric is pretty rough.”

Beatrice said, “The what?”

Apparently, in 19 years, I had never taught her the word that means “the downy or hairy surface of cloth formed by short hairs or fibers, esp. when artificially raised by brushing, etc.”

A few days later I was talking on Skype with my older daughter, Gwyneth. I said something like, “You should do something about that hank of hair.”

Gwyneth said, “That what?”

In 21 years, I had never taught her the word that means “a loop or coil of something flexible; 560 yards of worsted yarn; 840 yards of cotton yarn.”

All of us have gaps in our knowledge, words or skills that for whatever reason we never learned.

As I’ve mentioned in this space before, I didn’t know what the word “cutlery” meant until I was almost a teenager. I was at dinner at a friend’s house one night when his mom asked me to help set the table. Get the cutlery, she said.

The what?

Sometimes there are words we’ve only seen in type. We know what they mean, but when we pronounce them in our heads it’s according to some inner logic. We employ some boutique, artisanal pronunciation.

I had a friend who in his head would hear “mizzled” every time he came across the word “misled.”

If we’re lucky, we hear someone else pronounce these words correctly and we figure out from the context that we’ve been saying them wrong.

If we’re unlucky, we raise our hand in English class and launch into an impassioned argument that ends with us saying, “It’s clear that Shakespeare intended for Macbeth to be mizzled by the three witches.”

A lot of us drop out of college after something like that.

Then there are words or phrases that we pronounce just fine but whose meanings we misunderstand. For years, I thought the word “spendthrift” meant someone who was very careful with his money, very thrifty.

Apparently, it means the exact opposite.

But enough about me and my idiotic family. What about you and yours? What bits of supposedly common knowledge eluded you for years? How did you embarrass — or nearly embarrass — yourself? E-mail your confessions to me at kellyj@washpost.com, with “Wrong” in the subject line.

What words did you mispronounce or misunderstand? Did you mistakenly eat the corn husk wrapping on a tamale?

Or do you not know which side of the chicken is the breast? As I told Beatrice, it’s the one with the nipples.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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