If you’re anything like me (and since you’re reading this, I suspect you are), you cringe every time you hear someone mispronounce a word. And, if you’re anything like me, you also keep your critique of the offending person’s pronunciation to yourself for the simple reason that you like having friends. Good call.

While I can’t help you with how your friends and acquaintances say their words — or how you react to them — I can give you a lot more words to silently judge your friends by going forward. And since I’ve already used the word, let’s begin with the way some people pronounce “pronunciation.”

Since the verb “pronounce” includes in it the word “noun,” many people think that the noun “pronunciation” is pronounced “pro-noun-see-ay-shun.” But it isn’t, it’s just “pronunciation” — “nun” not “noun.”

If you pronounce arctic as “ar-tik” (as opposed to ark-tik) or leave out the first “r” when you say “February” or “library,” you’re guilty of the crime of dissimilation, or the phenomenon whereby similar vowels or consonants in the same word end up being pronounced differently, or one of them is dropped completely. It is especially common in English with so-called “liquid consonants,” such as “r” and “l.” “Suprise” for “surprise” and “beserk” of “berserk” are two examples.

Then there’s the word “hyperbole.” Let’s face it, we’re all guilty of a little hyperbole (exaggerated statements not meant to be taken literally) from time to time. So, even if you’re being less than straightforward when offering up some hyperbole, at least be sure that you’re saying it the right way. It’s not uttered like you’re discussing a “bowl” that happens to be “hyper.” It’s enunciated “hy-per-ba-lee.”

An antonym of “hyperbole” is “litotes” (an ironic understatement, such as saying, “You won’t be sorry” when you mean “You’ll be glad”). I bring this up because “litotes” isn’t pronounced like a “lie” someone “totes” around, but rather as “lye-tuh-teez.”


Yet another way to mispronounce words is to venture into the area of metathesis, or the transposition of sounds, syllables or letters in a word, especially in its pronunciation. The example of this particular grammatical blunder is “nuclear,” which, regardless of how former president George W. Bush said it, should never be uttered as “nuke-u-lar.” Go with “new-klee-er.”

A couple other words whose pronunciations often fall victim to metathesis are “asterisk” (which should not be pronounced “asteriks”) and prescription, which oftentimes incorrectly comes out as “perscription.”

A pair of oft-mispronounced V words are “victuals,” which in spite of the way it’s spelled, is correctly pronounced “vi-tulz,” and “viscount” (a title in Great Britain), whose spelling leads us away from the correct way of saying it, which according to Merriam-Webster is “vye-kount.”

“Meme,” which was coined by British biologist Richard Dawkins in 1976, comes from the Greek word “mimema,” which means “imitated.” While it’s been pronounced as “mee-mee” and even “may-may,” the correct way of saying it is “meem.”

“Often” is often mispronounced “off-ten,” incorrectly annunciating the silent “t.” Some lexicographers find that way of saying it so off putting that it is preceded by an obelus, which looks like a division sign and means “is considered by some to be questionable or unacceptable.”

“Epitome” (meaning “a perfect example of”) is not pronounced as if you’re discussing a tome about the EpiPen. Nope, “epitome” is correctly verbalized as “eh-pi-tuh-mee.”

And then sometimes the correct pronunciation of a word depends on whom you ask. For example, the folks at Merriam-Webster insist that the first letter of “gif” (an acronym for “graphics interchange format”) is a “hard G.” The term’s inventor, Steve Wilhite, disagrees, saying that his word should be pronounced the same way as the popular brand of peanut butter. Gee, pronunciations can be confusing.

Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and lover of words whose work includes “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine.” He can be reached at [email protected]

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