Friday, May 4, 2012


A homophone is a word that sounds like ("phone") another word but means something different: To, two, too.

Well, most of us have words we've heard but never seen written, and when we write them, we think of the alternate word....

Anyway. Just came across-- "The agent must explain the contract in Lehman's terms."  Huh? Who is Lehman? That happens to be my grandmother-in-law's married surname, but.... I had to read it aloud to get what the writer meant: "layman's terms," that is, ordinary-person-not-expert terminology. The mistake comes from not having "layman" in the vocabulary. I do, because I grew up Catholic, and the world was divided among the clergy (priests and nuns and their superiors), the laymen (us who were in the True Church but not ordained), and all the heathens (everyone else). So I know what "layman" means (not an expert), but of course to a youngster who has heard it but never seen it, it's going to mean less than the surname.

So come on, confess! When have you made a similar mistake because you didn't understand context, because you had only heard and not seen a word?

And more embarrassing even.... When have you only seen and never heard a word, so you mispronounced it? I'll start: I remember getting to college and telling a professor that I thought TS Eliot was the"epp-it-home of modern poetry." The professor gently suggested that maybe I meant "epit-oh-mee."


Alicia (The epitome of too soon old, too late smart)


L.G.C. Smith said...

My most embarrassing one of these came in grad school when I used 'exaggerated' instead of 'exacerbated.' I was twenty-seven years old, with two degrees in linguistics, and I'd never noticed the difference. The shame, the shame.

Peter Cooper said...

I once used "imprimada" instead of "imprimatur". I'm glad it's not just me who does these kind of things.

Iola said...

Took me ages to work out the correct pronounciation of 'segue'.

Read a book that used depredation when they thought it was a fancy word for deprivation. It's not.

The difficulty with some of these more complex homophones is that we don't know what we don't know (imprimada/imprimatur?), so we don't catch the errors.

But I guess that goes back to Strunk & White, and never using a complex word when a simple one will do.

However, there is still no excuse for your/you're, there/their etc.

Ashlyn Macnamara said...

I was a French major at university, I once had to write a few paragraphs explaining a historical event which featured Jean sans Peur (John the fearless). Except in my haste to finish the exam, I called him Jean sans Père (John the fatherless--i.e. bastard) throughout. I only noticed the error when I got my graded exam back. I hope I gave the prof a good laugh.

More recently, I had to pronounce the word 'rataffia' out loud. I'm glad I looked it up first, because I'd been saying it wrong in my head the entire time.

Alicia said...

Ashlynn, me too! I was pronouncing it ra TA fia.

And I guess it's RAT a fia.

I remember hearing a famous linguist confess that he often says "bought" when he means "brought." So some things can't be trained out. He also said, "Boughten."

I still say that "those shoes fitted perfectly." I'm like a little kid-- all past tense has -ed at the end.


Anonymous said...

Hah! Well, I hope this one's an urban legend, but one of my college professors claimed he once told students to write "essay" at the top of their papers and someone wrote the letters S and A.

Alicia said...

I just had a scene in a book where the villain lady was at a symphony, and she says that she just loves, "Camille Saynt-Say Enz."
And the symphony guild prez laughs at her-- "It's pronounced San-son."

And she says, of course, "Oh, yes. i just love HER."

I think we've all had those excruciating moments. I wish they made me more humble and compassionate!

Lesley Fletcher said...

The other day someone referred to an IV drip as an 'ivy' drip. I too make erros - I just can't think of one right now.

Unknown said...

I once pronounced "facade" as "fakade". Stupid foreign words.

I never said it out loud, but for the longest time I mispronounced "ethereal" in my mind.

Laura said...

I'll never forget the time a college classmate asked, "What's a pair-uh-diggum?" To which the response from his neighbor was, "That's when you've got two diggums joined together." Though I knew even then to pronounce it "pair-a-dime," to this day I can't help thinking "pair-uh-diggum" whenever I encounter "paradigm."

Adrian said...

In a story, I had a character tending to a banzai tree instead of a bonsai tree. Not exactly homophones, but a similar sort of error.

Anonymous said...

Glad it's not just me that mispronounces words. The one that gives me the hardest time is gesture. I want to say it guessture, like the game. It's because when I was little, I called the game Gestures and someone told me it was Guesstures. I didn't notice the spelling difference, so I thought that's the way the word was pronounced.

I just learned that subterfuge is not pronounced superfudge, which is how I'd been saying it in my head all along.

But there are lots of words that I do that with.

Stephen Kozeniewski said...

I knew a less than stellar philosophy major in college who didn't so much read whole texts as quote things randomly out of context. Finally, after a particularly non-sequitur contribution, one of the professors asked something like, "Where are you getting this stuff from?" The student fumbled around with his notecards and replied, "I. Kant." To which the professor promptly replied, "I know you can't, but where are you getting your ridiculous ideas from?"

Jordan McCollum said...

My mean old parents laughed at teenage me when I said "intristic" instead of "intrinsic."

Up until recently, I thought "bemused" and "amused" were synonyms. Um, no.

But my fave was the newspaper article that used the phrase "du jour" instead of what the interviewee meant, "de jure." I suppose it could have been the interviewee's error, but I doubt that person would use "de jure" if they didn't know that phrase. I attributed it to an ignorant journalist.

Alicia said...

I love these examples! And we're all being so brave to share these humiliating mistakes!


Edittorrent said...

Just came across another--

"There are four basic tenants to the iliastic approach."


Thomas Sharkey said...

I saw this one in a newspaper, a journalist was interviewing a 'best seller author', of whom I had never heard and he asked him:

'Tell me about all the prizes you have one.'

Now, how did that get printed!!?
Was it the journalist, the editor or the type setter (if they are still used)?
I can understand, effect vs. affect and past vs. passed, but one vs. won, this has to be a first.

linda said...

I once pronounced rapport with the t and got laughed at. The sad thing is that I took French in high school!

Also, it makes me sad when I see people write "here, here" or "wala" or "bowcoo" instead of what they're actually supposed to be. Especially the first! I see the incorrect version much more often than I see the correct version.

Anonymous said...

Back in my - er - youth, I accompanied my Mom to the store. She was in need of a new bra, and so we headed to the lingerie department.

Feeling very grown up, I said quite loudly, "Look at all the beautiful lingerie!"

I pronounced it linger-ee, rather than lahn-jer-ay. My mother nearly busted a gut laughing.

Anonymous said...

It is called "call-ee-ope" syndrome (calliope). It is actually very common in highly intelligent children who get a lot of their language from reading the classics - and have never had a chance to hear the words out loud. Be glad you have it, as well as aware, because it indicates your vocabulary is much larger than most peoples'. There is a story in my family that one Christmas when I was three, and received some Bible stories as a gift, I came in to my parents' bedroom one morning and asked what the 'tree of no-legged' was in the book of Genesis. When they stopped laughing, they told me the k was silent. Still makes us smile.

Anonymous said...

I've been known to purposefully remember the incorrect pronunciation because it helps me remember how to spell the word correctly :/

Shelver 506 said...

I can't even begin to list the words that I've mispronounced. I love to read and gobble up fun words like Pringles chips, but land on the correct pronunciation? Forget it.

"I know how to spell it; I just don't know how to say it" is like my catchphrase. Rather awkward.

I do remember when I was little that I couldn't figure out what the "chore" room was. I knew it wasn't REALLY chore, because I knew how that was spelled, but for the life of me I had no clue what C-H-O-I-R was and why all our singers went in there.