Malapropisms and Mispronunciations Helped Make English What It Is.

A very nice Guardian article by David Shariatmadari, a rare journalist who writes with actual understanding of language (which suggests he may have taken a linguistics course or two at some point). He starts with an anecdote about “a very senior academic” who “has been pronouncing ‘awry’ wrong all through her long, glittering career,” and continues thus:

We’ve all been there. I still lapse into mis-CHEE-vous if I’m not concentrating. This week some PR whizzes working for a railway station with an unusual name unveiled the results of a survey into frequently garbled words. The station itself is routinely confused with an endocrine gland about the size of a carrot (you can see why they hired PRs). Researchers also found that 340 of the 1000 surveyed said ex-cetera instead of etcetera, while 260 ordered ex-pressos instead of espressos. Prescription came out as perscription or proscription 20% of the time.

The point is malapropisms and mispronunciations are fairly common. The 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary lists 171,476 words as being in common [actually “current”—LH] use. But the average person’s vocabulary is tens of thousands smaller, and the number of words they use every day smaller still. There are bound to be things we’ve read or are vaguely familiar with, but not able to pronounce as we are supposed to.

The term “supposed” opens up a whole different debate, of course. Error is the engine of language change, and today’s mistake could be tomorrow’s vigorously defended norm. There are lots of wonderful examples of alternative pronunciations or missteps that have become standard usage. Here are some of my favourites, complete with fancy technical names.

Music to my ears! And there are indeed lots of good examples, like adder from nadder and bird from brid; it’s a fun read. (Thanks, Eric!)


  1. In France everyone says “ex cetera”. I need to constantly monitor myself in order not to laspe into the correct pronunciation.

  2. I am one of these unfortunate L2 English learners who thought or said ‘oary’ for decades. Probably because I never heard anyone say ‘awry’ until a few years ago.

  3. Trond Engen says

    Y: I am one of these unfortunate L2 English learners who thought or said ‘oary’ for decades. Probably because I never heard anyone say ‘awry’ until a few years ago.

    My son taught me that just a couple of weeks ago. That and ‘albeit’.

  4. I’ve never heard “mis-CHEE-vous”, but I’d bet good money that most people who actually use the word pronounce it “mischievious”. At least, that’s what I hear around these parts (NorCal).

  5. Yes, “mischievious” is extremely common; I barely wince any more when I hear it.

    In France everyone says “ex cetera”.

    Interesting! Surely the Académie disapproves?

  6. The author says that ‘wasp’ used to be ‘waps.’ My AHD confirms that.

    I recall a story that the Vespa motor scooter is so named because Enrico Piaggio, who had commissioned its design, took one look at the prototype and exclaimed “Sembra una vespa!” (“It resembles a wasp!”) The story is given several cites at the Wiki entry for the scooter.

    A quick look at an online Italian dictionary confirms that vespa is indeed the word for wasp in that language. Vespa is also its name in Latin. The French word is guêpe, which to my untrained eye suggests that ‘gu’ is substituting for w (the classic Latin pronunciation of v), and that the circumflex over the e signals an s that dropped out of sight. German has Wespe and Dutch has wesp. (Irish Gaelic has foiche.)

    So how did early (Middle? Old?) English acquire waps, and why did it revert to something very close to its Germanic and Romance equivalents?

  7. I’m sorry, but it stopped me short, so I can’t help asking: why use a sentence fragment to start your post when its ending segues so smoothly into the opening clause of the next sentence (“A very nice article Guardian article by David Shariatmadari . . . [appositive] . . . [relative clause] . . . [parenthetical] . . . starts with an anecdote . . . )?

  8. marie-lucie says

    French etcetera.excetera

    I said eccetera as a young child, but I soon switched to etcetera. Most members of my family say etcetera, and I don’t think they are the only ones in France to do so.


    I was never taught how to say this word, which I encountered rather late in my English studies, but I figured out on my own, many years ago, that it must be analyzed as a-wry and not “awr-y”. Since then I have heard a-wry from native speakers but “oary” from two linguists of European origin (although long-term residents of the US).

  9. marie-lucie says


    Latin uespa [wespa], Italian vespa [v-], German Wespe (origl. w-, now v-), French guêpe from earlier guespe [gwespe].

    Latin initial [u] before a vowel normally became [v] in French, Italian and Old Spanish, as in uenire becoming respectively venir, venire, venir ‘to come’, or uita : vie, vita, vida ‘life’. The Germanic invasions caused borrowings into Romance languages. These languages had initial [w] (still alive and well in English), which no longer existed in the descendants of Latin, so Germanic [w] was borrowed into the Romance languages as [gw], spelled gu. The French word then derives from a Germanic form rather than the Latin form. It is possible that at least in some dialects the shift from Latin [w] to French [v] was not complete, otherwise there would have been no [w] to change to [gw]. Alternately, some French (or rather Gallo-Roman) speakers must have been conscious of the resemblance of [wespe] to their vespe and may have adopted (and adapted) the (then more prestigious) Germanic pronunciation of their Frankish rulers.

    A few years ago I met a linguist from Spain whose last name was Guasp. It turned out he was Catalan, and said his name had no meaning in Catalan. I thought it might be another form of ‘wasp’, maintained in the name although not in in the vocabularly, which uses vespa.

  10. The wasp words come from the PIE root *webh- “weave” (some people give this root an initial laryngeal, I’m not sure why), presumably because of how wasps build their nests; wasp is thus cognate with web. The PIE word for wasp was something like *wobhsā. The metathesis to -sp- must be independent in Latin and Germanic.

    Spanish has avispa, with an initial a- that seems to has been borrowed from abeja “bee”.

  11. marie-lucie says

    Thank you, TR.

    The metathesis must have occurred because the cluster bhs or ps was unusual.

  12. marie-lucie says

    But English did not follow the other Germanic languages, since it kept waps. Perhaps the change to wasp was due to Norse influence?

  13. Thanks Hat!

    Shariatmadari has indeed taken a linguistics course or two. If I remember correctly, I think he read Linguistics at Cambridge followed by a post-grad degree at SOAS. His pieces on language are always quite interesting!

  14. Everybody pronounces /’naik/ in Spain, perhaps a kind of hypercorrection, to say Nike, and I think it’s the same in France. I don’t speak Greek but it seems English pronunciation is not correct either.

  15. Trond Engen says

    TR: The metathesis to -sp- must be independent in Latin and Germanic.

    marie-lucie: But English did not follow the other Germanic languages, since it kept waps. Perhaps the change to wasp was due to Norse influence?

    Most or all old West Germanic languages show variation between -ps- and -sp-. That could conceivably be influence from (Vulgar) Latin.

  16. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    I don’t know if I ever said “oary” but I certainly thought when I read “awry” that that was how it was pronounced, and made no particular connection between the word I heard pronounced correctly and the word on the printed page. Likewise “misled”, which I continued to think was the past tense of a verb “misle” until I was well into adulthood.

  17. m-l: Thanks, as always, for your learned contribution.
    TR: Thanks for tracing back to PIE.

    Correction: The AHD entry for wasp says that in Old English both wæps and wæsp are recorded.

    m-l: Perhaps the change to wasp was due to Norse influence?

    Doesn’t seem to be. In fact, even within the Nordic languages there was metathesis. That Old English had both forms noted above suggests a closer look at the older Nordic forms is warranted.

    I can only give examples of today’s words: The Norwegian (Bokmål) Wiki entry for Vespa says the scooter’s name means “veps.” Clicking about brought me to an entry on stikkvepser, the vespidae family. In Danish, I see hveps. The Icelandic Wiki entry for wasp is headed Geitungar, but I see in it the word broddvespur, which seems to refer to the suborder of insects, called apocrita in English, that includes bees, wasps and ants. Swedish for wasp is geting. I can’t find an online Faeroese dictionary . . .

    From the English translation by John Francis Davis of Friedrich Kluge’s etymological dictionary of German: Wespe, f., ‘wasp,’ from the equiv. MidHG. węspe, earlier węfse, f. (m.), OHG. węfsa (earlier wafsa), f., a genuine Teut. word; comp. AS. wæfs, wæps, m., E. wasp. Hence we must probably assume a Teut. wafs-, beside which Teut. wabis-, wabit-, is presupposed by Bav. wębes, East Thuringian wêpschen, wêwetzchen (in West Thur. wispel). Aryan wops- (wobhes-), which points to the verbal root weben (see Wiebel), is almost as widely diffused in the Aryan languages as Gorniffe; OBret. guohi ‘wasps’ (from wops-), Lith. vapsà ‘gadfly,’ OSlov. vosa, ‘wasp,’ and probably also by gradation Lat. vespa. In the MidHG. period a form vespe was borrowed from Lat. vespa; on the other hand, Fr. guêpe is probably due to on account of its initial sound to Ger. influence.

  18. m-l: We discussed much of this, including Sr. Guasp and the former prevalence of /w/ in Normand (and consequently in some English words), though not metathesis in wasp back in 2011.

  19. marie-lucie says

    JC, thank you for the link, that thread was quite interesting too and really should be reread in connection with this one. You have to admit that the name “Guasp” is striking enough to merit a repeated comment. Rereading the thread I was glad to get a refresher course from Etienne and David M on early Germanic languages and on the extent of Frankish influence not only on French but on the neighbouring languages to the South.

  20. marie-lucie says

    Much of the discussion on that previous thread concerned the stressed on- suffix in Spanish and French, which is sometimes diminutive and sometimes augmentative. Such contrary meanings for the same term or affix usually indicate that the traditional definitions miss the original perspective. An example is Latin altus ‘high/tall, deep’, the common meaning of which is ‘distant from the ground plane’.

    Witn -on I think that the original common meaning probably had to do with indicating some sort of emotional reaction to an entity similar to that denoted by the main word but substantially different in size, whether bigger or smaller than the norm. Words in -on which do not have such connotations may originate in homophonous forms in the original language, or they may have lost the size connotation.

  21. Add to ‘awry’ and ‘misled’ a few more, from an entry in John Wells’ now-defunct phonetic blog: biopic, inclement, miniseries, legend (mistook for leg-end!), lapel, and triple (contributed by one John Cowan.) When I was learning English in grade school, for the longest time I had no idea what the written word anyone meant, which I thought of as ˈænjoʊn.

  22. Add from the same source, infrared (< infrare + -ed), seabed (< seabe + -ed), and sundried (< sundry + -ed).

  23. ‘“mischievious” is extremely common;’ I was in my late 20s before I learned the truth.

    My mother, from the part of Oklahoma that was settled from Kansas and Nebraska, said “warsh” and “Warshington.” My fourth-grade English teacher, Mrs. Oxley, a severe and humorless woman, humiliated me in front of the class for writing “warsh”, which conformed to my pronunciation at the time.

  24. Warsh(ington) is from Western Pennsylvania and, for all I know, ultimately from Ulster or even Scotland.

  25. I pronounced “albeit” was Germanically for a long time. At least internally – I doh’t recall saying it aloud.

    But “salmon” I certainly got wrong long into my twenties.

  26. One that I had wrong for many years was the name of the company Titleist, which makes all kinds of golfing paraphernalia. Because so many sports goods manufacturers — Dunlop, Wilson, Slazenger, Head, Spalding, excetera — are named after people, I assumed that the golf company was founded by a German fellow who would have pronounced his name Tit-leist. Even when I finally heard the correct pronunciation — Title-ist — I was taken aback because it had never occurred to me that that would be a name for someone who had won a title.

  27. I came from a pretty literate household, but I had never heard the word “moniker” said out loud, or never registered it anyway, until I ended up being corrected for saying “monkier” by classmates at Harvard. And it took me till half way through an advanced degree at Oxford to realize that “inchoate” was not pronounced “in-chote”, though I never had the bad fortune to say it that way in company.
    Personally I think a monkier is a perfectly good word for a person-label, though I’m not certain about its relation to “monkey”. But then OED doesn’t know much about “moniker” either.

  28. It’s an excellent article; I’d love to see more like it on major news websites. That wasp was once waps was new to me, but I’ll never forget the first time I heard it pronounced /wæʃp/ (in the rural west of Ireland).

  29. David L: I believe there’s a Beavis and Butt-Head episode where they repeatedly pronounce the brand of golf balls TIT-lee-ist, and snicker (or snigger, depending on your dialect). Not the same mispronunciation as yours, but more amusing.

  30. My two were “lápple” (there are two on a suit jacket) and “skírts-er-ade” (the narrator of the Thousand And One Nights).

  31. Marie-Lucie: I strongly suspect the name “Guasp” is unrelated to Latin VESPA (quite apart from the fact that Latin /w/ does not become /gw/ in native Catalan words, stressed /e/ does not turn to /a/, and final unstressed /a/ is not droppped, in Catalan or indeed to my knowledge in any Romance variety of the Iberian peninsula).

  32. marie-lucie says

    I agree that “Guasp” does not follow normal Catalan rules of evolution, but family names do not necessarily originate in the language areas where they are found. The name then might have come from an ancestor speaking another dialect, or even a different language, from across the Pyrenees. How would the English word wasp have fared if adopted in a language where w was becoming gw?

  33. I remember thinking that the German word bisher must be an exception to the “sch” spelling and that it might be a high rank in the Lutheran church.

  34. Jimsal, I like “A very nice Guardian article by David Shariatmadari, a rare journalist…” It’s exactly the comment someone might make over the breakfast table while reading the morning papers.

  35. Turns out I got “reneged” wrong as well. How the fuck was I to know that is a hard g?

  36. Yeah, that’s a particularly annoying bit of spelling weirdness.

  37. But St Pancreas is so close to the Eustachian Tube line!

  38. >Richard Howland-Bolton
    In some cases St Pancreas is closer to the Fallopian tubes than the Eustachian tubes.

  39. Standardising on “renege” rather than “renegue” was a bad idea. So is writing “barbeque” for “barbecue” Simplistifying.

    I can’t help mentally pronouncing “teargas” as a non-existent Irish word [ˈtʃaːrgəs].

    I’ve never heard an Irish person say “Warshington”, but many say “Chicargo”.

  40. I’ve forgotten all my spelling mispronunciations. I only learned last week that ‘gill’ meaning ‘quarter-pint’ is pronounced ‘jill’, while memorizing James Stephens’s ‘A Glass of Beer’, but that doesn’t feel like quite the same thing.

    ‘Misled’ may be the misreading most often created independently; I think I’ve read at least half a dozen accounts from mizzlers and mizelers. The first, maybe fifty years ago, was in Theodore Sturgeon’s Venus Plus X:

    For example he had for years pronounced the word “misled” as “mizzled,” for a reason which demonstrates the clarity of his logic if nothing else: as a child he had seen on a box of English biscuits the picture of a trumpeter, from whose instrument came a staff of music with the staff drawn in wavy lines, probably to convey the idea of a fanfare in vibrato. Directly under and beside the staff was the legend “Don’t be misled”; to Charlie, “mizzled” meant to be sort of wobbly and confused, like those lines. It was amazing how many people, for how long, caught his meaning when he used this word.

    Fiction, but I’d bet that this, like other things about Charlie, was taken from Sturgeon’s own life.

  41. V+X FTW!

  42. Alon Lischinsky says

    @marie-lucie: AFAIK, ‘Guasp’ is a Balearic (specifically Majorcan) variant of the same surname that ended up as ‘Guasch’ in the mainlaind, meaning ‘Gascon’. I can’t very well explain the labialisation of the final plosive (/k/→/p/), but then again surnames are often subject to peculiar developments.

    The Majorcan Guasps were an important family, a dynasty of printers and bookbinders that ran Imprenta Guasp in Palma from 1576 to 1958 (!).

  43. marie-lucie says

    Alon, thank you. I noticed on Google that most of the Guasps are in Mallorca.

    Are there other examples of the change k to p? It would make sense if there was an intermediate stage kw, perhaps in a back-formation from Guascó(n) to [gwáskw] then [gwasp].

    Etienne, would that make sense to you?

  44. For some reason I never suspected that ‘awry’ could be anything but ‘a-wry’.

    But I did find out the hard way — being corrected by a Japanese speaker — that ‘cognisant’ is pronounced /’kɔgnəzənt/ and not /kəg’naizənt/.

  45. des von nlsn-hydn says

    (I am going to stick with my old “Hyperbowl” and my old mumpsimus.)

  46. The Hyperbowl, of course, follows the Superbowl.

  47. Surely the ‹s› in misled is silent, as in isle?

  48. See also this comment.

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