MISPRONUNCIATION / by robert lynd

Daily News – 3 February 1923


“What does ‘vehemently’ mean?” a child asked me on hearing me using the word, I told her. “Oh,” she said, “I always call that vehemminently.’”
If you say it over to yourself you will see that it sounds much better that way. It is melancholy to think that as the child grows up she will inevitably take to the correct pronunciation of the word and give up her own vastly superior one.
I myself as a small child always pronounced “determined” “detterminded,” with the accent on the last syllable but one. You will agree, I think, that pronounced in this way the word expresses purpose much better than if you pronounce it correctly. As I grew up I weakly gave in to authority, and my vocabulary is the poorer as a result of my cowardice.
Is it one of the evil results of education that we all try to pronounce words in the same way—to give them the same “pronounciation,” as I once heard it called by a countryman.

There should be scope for individual preferences in the pronunciation of words. I have heard a young poet using the word “lugaborious” in describing a ballad singer’s music, and this seems to me to convey a sense of gloom, boringness, and toilsome effort in a way in which “lugubrious” does not.
What a good adjective, again, did the housemaid invent when she described somebody as a “pomptious” man!
It is a curious fact that most people find mispronunciation of words extraordinarily interesting. A man can become one of the day’s subjects for conversation merely by pronouncing a word wrong in a pulpit or on a platform.
One speaker startled his hearers a few years ago by speaking tenderly of what he called “an ee-wee-lamb.” It is almost incredible that an educated man should be able to go through life without ever having heard the word “ewe-lamb” pronounced in the usual way and quietly giving in. This man, I imagine, had got it into his head as a child that “ewe” was pronounced “ee-wee,” and he simply had not the power to unlearn it.
I knew a child who for years thought that “upholsterer” was pronounced “youful steerer.” Could anything be more charming? The world is surely the richer for so nobly-pronounced a trade. Yet education comes along and insists that every little boy and girl shall call an upholsterer an upholsterer, which seems to me exceedingly dull in comparison.

I have no quarrel with school teachers for teaching children the correct pronunciation of words, when the mispronunciation is not eccentric, but follows a convention of its own. There is not virtue, for instance, in calling ham “’am,” if the child does this merely because it has heard other people doing so. The only mispronunciation that give pleasure are those which are individual, and are, as it were, freshly invented.
I remember as a small boy going up one day an hour before a party was to begin to a sideboard on which there where jellies as beautiful as rainbows and all manner of other delightful dishes. A servant came into the room and saw me drawing dangerously near the food with greedy eyes. “Come away, now,” she ordered me, “from them combustibles.” I had never heard the word before, but even then I enjoyed it. And it still seems to me a much more expressive word than “comestibles” for too rich a mixture of exquisite foods.


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