Friday, 13 December 2013

Cacoepy - 20 Words You're Mispronouncing Like A Numpty

Bad pronunciation, Mispronunciation
"Sal-mun? SAL-mun? Rawwwwrgh!"
(photo by David Goehring)


Noun. Late 19th century.
[Greek kak(o)epia, formed as CACO- + epos word: see -Y.]

Bad pronunciation (opposed to orthoepy).

English can be an unforgiving language. Sure, the grammar is easy and the people are lovely, but the spelling and pronunciation can be a real nipple twist, especially for children who read a lot but didn't go to school much (me), and therefore grew up mispronouncing names like P.G Wodehouse (it's pronounced wood-house), the Galapagos Islands (I said galla-pay-gos) and Socrates (I said so-krah-tees).

These are examples of cacoepy - bad pronunciation - something that thrives in English due to its ambiguous spelling, cultural diversity and eclectic linguistic roots. Help is now at hand, however, and I have compiled a list of twenty commonly mispronounced words or, at least, twenty mispronunciations that particularly irk me. Yes, pronunciation is somewhat subjective; yes, it varies from region to region and changes over time, but these are the correct pronunciations. Definitely. Without a doubt. And I've provided links from Collins English Dictionary to prove it (not the OED, as it still doesn't have an online audible pronunciation guide - come on guys! Sort it out!). So there.

1. Salmon
It's sam-uhn or sam-un, not sal-mun. And don't even think of throwing back: "Well why's there an L in it then?"
This is English; English has silent letters, and the L in salmon is one of them.

2. Almond
Oh yeah. You know where this one's going - don't say al-mund like a div. Sure, some people say it like that,
and some lesser dictionaries have even conceded to their ignorance. But not the OED; not on your nelly.

There are only three syllables in mischievous - it's not miss-chee-vee-us.

Do you see how many Cs are in Antarctic? Two. Use them. That goes for Arctic too.

It's a fancy word that's guaranteed to make you look clever. However, if you pronounce it like some futuristic football game,
you're going to look stupider than a camel being pushed through a letterbox.

Do you see how many Xs are in espresso? That's right. None. Keep it that way.

7. Moot
Moot is a great word for belittling someone's else argument. However, if you say "That's a mute point," you lose. Immediately. Them's the rules.

It's an Ordnance Survey map and it's military ordnance - ordinance is a completely different word. You nutter.

Don't per-cue-late your coffee; percolate it. Just like it's written. 

Prostate and prostrate are two different words; pronounce them differently. And know the difference.

Three events; three syllables. It's not try-ath-a-lon

12. Utmost
Do your utmost to say this correctly - it's not upmost.

It's not acks-trisk, or as-ter ... well it's not anything except asterisk.

Arky-pell-ago. The first syllable isn't arch. And read Alexander Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago. It's brilliant.

If you're from the US, you say loo-tenant, but if you speak properly, you say leff-tenant.
I'm joking of course! This is an example of British English straying from the historical norm.

Don't slip in an extra syllable - it's not interpretator. Yes, it's cute when a child says that, but not an adult.

17. Meme
It's not me-me, or may-may, or moo-moo, or anything except meem. It rhymes with cream and dream. Easy.

18. Forte
Here's a peculiar one: if pronunciation isn't your forte, you might be surprised to know that the correct pronunciation is fort, and not for-tay.
However, for-tay is so widespread that only the über-pedants would dare correct anyone on this. Go, über-pedants! Do your work!

Seriously - get this one right; if you're going to correct anyone's pronunciation, you must be able to pronunciate pronunciation correctly:
it's not pro-noun-see-ay-shun. No, no, no.

20. Cacoepy
If you're going to tell anyone about this great post on bad pronunciation, you had better be able to pronounce the word cacoepy
(and English, being a language of humour, has made it nice and difficult to pronounce): it's cack-oh-eh-pee. 

The perfect gift
(photo by Chris Drumm Books)

What examples of cacoepy drive you nuts?

What words do you struggle with?

What do you disagree with on this list?

Do please like, share, tweet, and leave your most intransigent comments in the box below.


  1. Oh my goodness, the word "ask." I don't know if this particular abomination stalks both sides of the Atlantic, but in the good ol' United States you occasionally hear people wanting to "axe a question."

    Instant. Fury.

    1. Yes! Fury! Stoke that ire, Katie!

      It's not a big thing here (I don't think?), but it does pop up a lot on lists of most irritating words, etc.

  2. And then they say English is an easy language. Puh.

    Anyway, I struggle with "suggestion". Those two "g"'s. Ugh >< dzj? And that "s" at the beginning always slurs into a "sh". Frustrations! Once I had an English teacher call me to the front of the class to say "th" twenty times. Because I couldn't say it right. F* you, English teacher. People understand me even if my "th" sounds like a "d". (<-- teenage trauma)

    1. (That's only when the "th" is in the middle of the word though. At the beginning I can manage it. Besides, I wouldn't go pronouncing "thick" with a "d". That wouldn't be very catholic.)

    2. That's very bad form indeed, Bibi - one shouldn't teach by humiliation. And there is a difference between a native speaker that is just mispronouncing a word through ignorance or laziness, and an English learner who is tackling unfamiliar sounds. I have a Spanish friend, for example, who just never says the English word 'sheet' because, try as he might, he just can't articulate between the long 'sheee' of 'sheet' and the short 'shi' of ... well ... y'know. He just asks for a 'piece' of paper now : o )

    3. Synonyms are our friends. And descriptions. If only to avoid sounding absolutely ridiculous. We sound funny enough even without mispronunciations.

      Seriously though: what's the easiest way to pronounce "suggestion"?

    4. Hmm. The guy that teaches me Romanian (which has some unfamiliar sounds and sound combinations for an English speaker) uses a system whereby words that are tricky are learnt backwards, a syllable at a time. Therefore, he would get me to repeat:

      Jun, Jess-jun, Suh-jess-jun

      I found it quite useful when practising difficult words.

    5. No t's.

      I can't imagine learning to speak English. It's a total mess.

      But, as evidenced by this blog, an interesting mess. :)

    6. I've been saying 'suggestion' over and over and, unlike 'suggest', I can't hear a T sound. In fact, when I try and sound the T it gets quite difficult. I think the way I wrote it phonetically is just accurate for the proper pronunciation: suh-jess-jun

    7. "Suggestion" is gonna be one slurred and lispy mess... no t's, who'd 've thought?

  3. I've been thinking. Maybe I should just stick with the good old "can I suggest something" instead of "can I make a suggestion". Before I tie my tongue in a knot. Or spit all over the person I'm talking to.

    English is horrible. Continuons en français. La prononciation des mots est plus façile. Et en plus, le mot "suggestion" en français a un "t", comme il se doit!

    1. I've looked up the OED's entry on 'suggestion', and it's pronunciation guide gives no T: "Suggestion" on the OED

      So, while 'suggest' is pronounced with a T, it doesn't get carried over into 'suggestion' - it's lost in the J- or CH- sound - sugges-chun.

      That seems quite a bit easier.

    2. Here, many people say suG-djeshchun.

    3. I've been saying this over and over and I still think the easiest way is: suh-jess-jun

      No Ts, no Ds ... just a clear, precise pathway to communication : o )

  4. Ok, I LOVE this post and everything that has to do with pronunciation! :)

    1. I recently read this which you may find interesting:

    2. When I talk anout pronunciation I can't help remembering one of the families I used to work with. The mother was the most obnoxious person on Earth and she thought her English was sooo good and she always tried to correct things I had said to her kids (behind my back).
    So, her son insisted on pronouncing "decade" like "decayed" and when I told him that native speakers wouldn't probably say it that way he flashed a cheap dictionary in my face where I saw that "decayed" is considered legitimate. And after some research I found out that all dictionaries give that second option, but still I've never heard anyone say "decayed", so we had that debate going on forever. I'd love to hear Lexicolatry's opinion.

    Then it was his sister and the word "often". Silent letters are a huge issue with Greek students (because there's no such thing in Greek). So, I pronounce the "t" in often especially when I teach children. The mother would yell at her and say "it's ofen" and then the little girl would come to me and say my mom says it's wrong when you say the "t". Grrrrrrr!

    3. About Socrates, well done! He's Greek so you pronounced it the Greek way! :)

    4. Everyone here keeps calling me eeeeeeeevieeee (like in leaf) for some reason.

    5. My husband's name is Orestis (ancient Greek), so one day a girl at a store told him "Orestis?? Like "arrest me"??"

    I can go on and on forever with bits and pieces of things that are probably boring to you, so I'm ending it here. Great post! (It's been tweeted)

    1. I'm so glad you liked it Evie : o )

      1) Thanks for the article - I can see myself using that on some future word.

      2) Hmm. "Decade" - this is very interesting. I've just consulted my dictionaries, and to my surprise they indeed give two pronunciations. However, I believe you're right in that the majority of native English speakers (at least British ones) wouldn't say "decayed" - the stress is firmly on the first syllable for us. "Decayed" sounds odd and affected. Maybe an American can tell us what they say state-side.

      With regards "often" - I say the T, although it's a softer T sound (as often happens), somewhere between a D and T. However, a lot of people say "offen", and I've even seen a list that says this is the only correct pronunciation. This is nonsense! Both are used, and I would consider use of the T to be the more correct and formal.

      In both of these instances, Evi, I think you're right : o )

      3) Yay! In your face, everyone that laughed at my idiosyncratic but authentic pronunciation of Socrates!

      4) I think I've been calling you Eeeevieeee. What should it be? Should it rhyme with 'bevy'?

      5) Well, one day an (adult) coworker told me it was stupid that my parents named me after a type of whirlpool (an eddy). Some people are idiots.

      And no! You're not boring me. This is right up my street - I love all these little linguistic stories. You must share more, Evie .. I mean Evvy ... Ee-vee (?). Help!

    2. Yeap, it' rhymes with bevy. The funny thing is that if you say the whole thing (Paraskevi) you will probably pronounce the 'evi' part correctly, but you will stress the 'ke' syllable so then it will sound wrong because it's the "vi" syllable that should be stressed.

      Eeeevieeee is funny because in Greek it's the name of the mythological goddess of youth, but it's also the brand name of a soft drink and it means puberty as well.

      I guess you've already read the poem "Hints on English Pronunciation". I love it!

      As for "often", I used to not pronounce the "t" myself but then I saw how baffled the younger students seemed with all the silent letters, so if they weren't allowed to say "lisTen", "casTle", "dauKter" and the rest, I granted them "often".

    3. Right ... got it ... Evi / Bevy ... Evi / Bevy ...

      'Often' with a T is perfectly correct, Evi ... I'm just off to remonstrate with Jingles and Sally now ...


  5. Other than the ones mentioned above, the common mispronunciation of library irks me no end!
    It's library, not libary!!

    I always thought often should be 'offen', and not with a t.
    Hmm. It may not be wrong, but I don't like it! :)

    1. It was always offen, but when people (the common people) started to learn to read and saw the t they began to pronounce it. In fact there was a speak-as-you-spell movement that encouraged it.
      So at the moment offen and often are both right, though offen is less hard work for the tongue.
      You have the choice between being sneered at by the oiks or the toffs, really. Hey, but what else is new.

    2. Both right indeed! May I say that the 'less work on the tongue' angle is a slippery slope indeed: a' leas' dat's wha' I fink (aargh!), an' once we gone down i' it's furraghly difficul' to return, inni?


      Often with a T, often with T!

  6. Another common one is the champagne brand Moet et Chandon. Everyone pronounces it "Moay" but no no no. It's "MoET". But you should know that Ed. You're proper posh intya!

    1. Oh I'm proper upper-upper-upper-class me (a whole tier above the queen). Talking of upper class, I knew an upper class woman once (maybe upper middle, the prole) that was convinced the proper pronunciation was champ-agg-nay. Hmm. And no - I didn't know that about Moet et Chandon; I'm not a big drinker, and certainly not one for champers. But you have saved me from an inevitable faux pas in the future, and for that I thank thee verily.

  7. I'm so confused by #2: Almond. It seems to be saying that you shouldn't pronounce the 'l'. I've never in my life heard it pronounced without the 'l'. Are you supposed to say it like 'Ah-mund'? Is this another British vs NA thing? I've never heard anyone in Canada say 'Ah-mund'. What the...?

    1. Yes, that's exactly what it's saying - no L, just like there's no L sound in 'salmon'. I was being a bit cheeky, as it's true that the pronunciation of the L is increasing, but the OED only recognises the L-less pronunciation for speakers of British English. For speaker of US English, however, it too conceded that an L (might) be slipped in there.

  8. I wish the word AL-U-MIN-IUM was highlighted. It's not AL-U-MIN-UM! There are two 'I's in the effing word!
    I can just about cope with Americans saying tom-AY-toe because they don't teach phonics at school so can only say the AY sound of 'A', and find the 'AH' sound too complicated to deal with on the same letter. But can't understand then why then say PAH-sta for Italian food when they also say 'past' for the historical tense, or 'last' for the ultimate object.
    Also FebRUary, not FebYOUary, although many British news reporters do this as well. I think it's a modern laziness of reading/bad habit of speech.

    1. February nearly made the list ... oh it came so close!

      Regarding aluminium, US and British English speakers don't just pronounce it differently - they spell it differently too, and both in accord with how they pronounce it. Therefore, 'aluminium' (Brit) and 'aluminum' (US).

  9. Um, that, " you must be able to pronunciate pronunciation correctly:" has a nonsense word in it!
    You should have written, "you must be able to pronounce 'pronunciation' correctly" :P
    English and American are two different languages anyway.
    And if they're not, then Americans need to learn how to pronounce the letter 'T' properly. (I'm tired of hearing Americans say 'waddeh' when they mean 'water')

    1. And to think I was considering using 'pronunciate' in the post's title - what scandal there would have been!