Readers share their mispronunciations

John Kelly
Columnist August 19, 2012

There are few personal qualities greater than an ability to laugh at oneself. We will be exploring this concept at length over the next few days.

I recently invited readers to share their stupidities. Well, perhaps “stupidities” is too strong a word. What I meant was those things we don’t know — but that we don’t know we don’t know, if you know what I mean. These can be the definitions of certain words. Or their pronunciation. Or bits of “common” knowledge that somehow never took root in the loamy soil of our brains.

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

The moment we are set straight can be incredibly enlightening, in a mortified, I-want-to-curl-up-and-die sort of way. Olney’s Sue Bray was in the fifth grade when she was reading a story aloud in class. “I mispronounced the name ‘Penelope,’ never having heard it before,” she wrote. “Mr. Eckenrode made sure to thoroughly embarrass me by adding ‘Was she with her friends, ‘antelope’ and ‘cantaloupe’?”

Vienna’s Kent Bailey was at his second day at Gonzaga high school, standing in the bookstore, when “a scowling Jesuit” awaited his decision: Don KWIX-oat or Don kwix-OH-tee?

In college, Belinda Bullock of Sterling was giving a presentation on Yosemite National Park, or as she pronounced it: “Yosamight.”


Park visitors admire rushing waterfalls at Yosemite (that’s Yo-sem-i-tee) National Park. (Scott Kirkwood/COURTESY OF SCOTT KIRKWOOD/NPCA)

Wrote Belinda: “Very embarrassing when the professor had to correct me, especially since my parents are British and very particular about grammar!”

Charlottesville’s Mary Ann Coffey had a similar experience in college. She made an impassioned speech arguing that someone was the “ep-i-TOME” of something. “It was one of those words I had read and knew how to use, but had never heard pronounced,” Mary Ann wrote.

Oakton’s Anthony Medici always knew what “awry” meant, but when he pronounced it “ORE-ee” in front of his boss, the man said, “What!?”

“You know,” Anthony said. “Things gone off from their proper direction.”

“It’s your pronunciation that is off course,” his boss said.

Many years ago, before she met her wonderful husband, Kathy Cohen was dating “the boyfriend-from-hell, an older, snotty cynic.” One day, while reading aloud from a newspaper article, she twice mispronounced the word “hyperbole” (“as if I were describing a cereal bowl with ADHD”).

“After the second time, he corrected me, his voice oozing irritation and derision,” Kathy wrote. “I am sorry to say I continued seeing him for another year.”

You can always count on your mother to knock you down a peg or two. Columbia’s Mike Tripicco was about to graduate with a smarty-pants degree in astrophysics when he was riding in the car with his mom. “We were talking about Stephen King,” Mike remembered. “Trying to sound erudite, I offhandedly but confidently mentioned that he was ‘the master of the mack-a-bray.’ It didn’t take her long to realize that the word I was trying to casually drop was ‘macabre.’ And to her dying day she never let me forget that.”

Chris Abraham grew up in Honolulu and while he had seen the word “hors d’oeuvres” before, it wasn’t one he used. In Hawaii the preferred term is “pupu.” And so when Chris arrived at George Washington University in 1988 and attempted to describe what pupus were, he said they were the same thing as “whore’s de vores.”

Wrote Chris: “My best friend,Mark Harrison, smiled and said, ‘Chris, I think you mean ‘oar durves.’ ”

Bethesda’s Zach Hamilton-Cotter is a 20-year-old college student. As a young teen, he once perused the many offerings described on a sandwich shop’s chalkboard. One sandwich looked particularly intriguing. “I proceeded to ask the young girl behind the register what ‘bo-logg-na’ was,” Zach wrote.

She cracked a smile and asked if Zach meant “baloney.” Wrote Zach: “Up until that point in my life I had been too busy consuming such an exotic delicacy and had been missing out on learning its correct origin.”

Speaking of food, Robin Levin’s father often invented his own pronunciations for words that he had seen only in print, usually giving them a Yiddish spin. For example, to him the sugared fruit dessert compote was “come-PUTT.”

Wrote Robin, of Takoma Park: “One night we were at a Chinese restaurant and the waiter, in a thick Chinese accent, recited the dessert options: ice cream, pineapple and ‘compote.’ My father delightedly ordered the compote, exclaiming, ‘Wow, it’s really unusual to see a Chinese restaurant with compote on the menu.’”

The waiter returned with the order and placed the dish in front of Robin’s father, who looked at it quizzically.

“This does not look like compote,” he said.

Wrote Robin: “All at once, the light bulb of recognition went off, he burst out laughing, shrugged and dug in. That was the night my father had his first taste of kumquats.”

Tomorrow: More tasty mistakes.

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

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