11 Common Mispronunciations
[noo-klee-er, nyoo- or, by metathesis, -kyuh-ler]
The adjective nuclear often comes up in discussions of common mispronunciations thanks to a handful of very famous and well-educated people who have demonstrated difficulty producing this particular series of letters. Rather than saying [noo-klee-er], some speakers say [noo-kyuh-ler], which is sometimes spelled out as nucular. In linguistic terms, this is an example of metathesis, or the transposition of letters, syllables, or sounds in a word. In this case, the l sound is moved from the second syllable to the final syllable. George W. Bush famously mispronounced nuclear, but he wasn’t the first US president to do so; Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, and Dwight D. Eisenhower also succumbed to the perils of this specific example of metathesis.
Much like nuclear the word ask is a victim of metathesis. Many people transpose the s and the k, saying [aks] or [ax] rather than [ask]. Today this pronunciation is considered by many to be a mistake; however, this pronunciation has been present in English for centuries. Back when Middle English was spoken, the most famous writer of the time, Chaucer, pronounced ask as [aks]. We know this because he spells ask as axe. English spelling standardization is a relatively recent phenomenon, which took place after Chaucer’s time. Because of this, scholars can use Chaucer’s spelling to piece together how people pronounced words in the 15th century.
The term mischievous is easier to say than many people think. Its correct pronunciation is [mis-chuh-vuhs], but many people add an extra syllable and move the stress, saying instead [mis-chee-vee-uhs]. There is evidence that mischievious was a fairly standard alternative spelling from the 16th to 18th centuries, though today this spelling and pronunciation are generally regarded as nonstandard. That said, switching over to the accepted three-syllable pronunciation will save you time and energy when dealing with your already exhausting mischievous relations.
[uht-mohst or, esp. British, -muhst]
Many people use the term upmost, with a p when they are intending to say utmost with a t. This drives grammar sticklers insane, though it’s not necessarily incorrect. Utmost has two adjectival senses: it can mean "of the greatest or highest degree, quantity, or the like," or "being the farthest point or extremity." Upmost, on the other hand, means simply "uppermost" or "predominant." If you happen to be discussing something very important or very high, either term could conceivably work, however utmost tends to take more abstract complements.
[jif or, sometimes, gif]
The pronunciation of GIF is a polarizing topic. Steve Wilhite, the creator of this useful and ubiquitous file format, insists that you pronounce it [jif], with a soft g, however [gif] with a hard g is also acceptable according to Dictionary.com. If you’re speaking with someone well-versed in GIFs, it might be safer to go with [jif], though we’ll leave that up to your own discretion.
If you only ever come across the literary term hyperbole in reading, it’s hard to know how it’s pronounced. This word comes from the Greek hyperbolḗ, and is pronounced [hahy-pur-buh-lee]. Because English borrows from so many languages, it’s sometimes difficult for native English speakers to know which pronunciation rules have been borrowed along with their respective loanwords.
The preferred pronunciation for niche has changed over time. When it first came to English in the 17th century, speakers anglicized this French term and said [nich]. In the 20th century an approximation of the original French pronunciation gained ground, and since that time, either [neesh] or [nich] has been considered correct. That said, these days it seems that British English speakers tend to prefer [neesh], while American English speakers prefer [nich].
Another French loanword, cache comes up often in the context of computer memory. Computers store frequently accessed contents in their caches to enable quick retrieval of these contents on demand. This term came to English in the late 18th century—back then it referred to a hiding place—and has since retained the French pronunciation [kash]. Because some languages accent the terminal e, it’s easy for confused English speakers to mispronounce this term as [kash-shey].
Many English speakers add an extra r into the tasty French loanword sherbet, pronouncing it as [shur-bert]. This incorrect pronunciation is so rampant, however, that even the company behind the 1990s toy craze, Beanie Babies, named one of their Pillow Pals—a tie-dyed bear—Sherbert in 1998. The correct pronunciation is [shur-bit].
British biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term meme in 1976 to refer to "a cultural item that is transmitted by repetition and replication in a manner analogous to the biological transmission of genes." It comes from the Greek mīmeîsthai meaning "to imitate, copy," and is pronounced [meem]. English speakers can easily mispronounce this as the meaningless [mee-mee] or as the French word même, pronounced [mem], however they will likely be corrected by their more internet-savvy friends.
In pronouncing arctic many people leave out the first c opting for [ahr-tic] instead of [ahrk-tic]. Perhaps this is so common because saying c and the t is a very difficult vocal transition. But, never fear! Both pronunciations are accepted in English according to Dictionary.com.
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