Chances are, when you started reading you encountered plenty of new words. That’s great for you—you were learning, after all—but here’s the catch. Your skill at pronouncing these words didn’t necessarily keep up with your reading skills, leading to some funny mishaps. Did colonel’s pronunciation confuse you? What about choir? Or hors’d’oeuvres? (Did you try “horse divorce” or “hers dervs”?) This might seem silly now, but many of us have funny stories about the words that tripped us up when we tried to say them out loud for the first time!
To be clear, there’s no shame in this—if you’ve only read a particular word, how are you supposed to know? (By the way hors d’ouevre is correctly pronounced [ awr durv ] because, French.)
Let’s take a look at some other words that you’re liable to mispronounce if you learn them from a book.
Another word from French that causes problems is fatigue, “weariness from bodily or mental exertion.” Some readers may think fatigue is pronounced “fay-tah-gew” based on the way it looks on the page. Makes sense! Those -gue endings are confusing. But in English, fatigue is pronounced [ fuh–teeg ].
As we noted, -gue endings can be tricky. This problem pops up again with the word meringue. Doubly so, because it appears in the popular children’s book Amelia Bedelia. If you’re not familiar with the story, Amelia is a well-intentioned but deeply confused maid who makes all kinds of hilarious mistakes by taking things too literally. But, she makes up for it by whipping up a delicious lemon meringue pie. Kids and adults alike might be tempted to pronounce this word as “mer-in-goo” (which doesn’t sound too tasty). However, meringue is properly pronounced [ muh–rang ].
When it comes to -gue, we aren’t out of the woods yet. A final, third possible pronunciation of this syllable pops up in the word segue, “to make a transition from one thing to another smoothly and without interruption.” Based on the other examples we’ve seen, you might think segue is pronounced “seeg.” But, no, it’s properly pronounced [ seg-wey ]. In a just world, segue would be spelled “segway.”
Words from another language can throw off even the most experienced readers. In a 1996 interview, David Foster Wallace revealed the word that haunts him:
“In my very first seminar in college, I pronounced facade “fakade.” The memory’s still fresh and raw.”
Understandably embarrassing, especially when you’re trying to impress your new schoolmates. It helps to know that one spelling of the French facade is with a cedilla—façade. That little tail on the C tells you that it is a C that makes an S sound. So, facade is correctly pronounced [ fuh–sahd ]. A facade, by the way, is “a superficial appearance or illusion of something” or “the front of a building, especially an imposing or decorative one.”
Sometimes even the most devoted detectives are brought down by the smallest detail. Young readers of the beloved Nancy Drew series could master difficult concepts. (Red herrings! Alibis! Complex inheritance law!) But these same readers were often undone by the pronunciation of sleuth, which means “a detective.” It looks like it could be pronounced “sleth” or “sleh-uhth.” But, if you investigate the dictionary a little further, you will find that sleuth is properly pronounced [ slooth ], from the Middle English sloth, meaning “track or trail.”
When now-Senator J. D. Vance published Hillbilly Elegy in 2016 (it was later made into a film for Netflix in 2020), the word elegy had a moment in the spotlight. As a result, more people were using the word than ever before … even if they weren’t quite sure how it was pronounced. An elegy is “a mournful, melancholy, or plaintive poem, especially a funeral song or a lament for the dead.” Many assume it’s pronounced with a hard G, saying “eleguee.” However, elegy actually uses a soft G, and the second E is short, not long. The correct pronunciation is [ el-i-jee ].
We have almost the opposite problem when it comes to the word superfluous, meaning “being more than is sufficient or required; excessive.” You might think that it should be pronounced as almost two separate words, “soo-per floo-uhs,” like in superpower or superbaby. But the emphasis properly goes on the second syllable: [ soo-per-floo-uhs ].
Sometimes part of the problem with reading words aloud in English is the difference between American and British spelling conventions. A common one that trips up American readers is the British spelling of jail, gaol. This spelling of the word pops up in British literature, like Oscar Wilde’s “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”:
In Reading gaol by Reading town
There is a pit of shame …
Americans might think it’s pronounced “ga-ohl” but gaol is pronounced the same as jail: [ jeyl ]. As an aside, the town of Reading isn’t pronounced “reading,” like the verb, but [ reh-ding ].
Another word that might embarrassingly trip you up when you’re reading aloud in your high school English class is sepulcher (US) or sepulchre (UK). A sepulcher is “a tomb, grave, or burial place.” It pops up in, for example, Edgar Allen Poe’s poem “Annabel Lee“:
A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling
My beautiful Annabel Lee;
So that her highborn kinsmen came
And bore her away from me,
To shut her up in a sepulchre
In this kingdom by the sea.
Poe, always creepy. The -chre ending might make you think there’s [ ch ] sound in sepulcher, but those letters actually represent a hard C sound: [ sep–uhl-ker ].
The silent S is relatively rare in English, but it does pop up in a couple words you’re most likely to first encounter in books. One of those is isle, meaning “a small island.” It’s in a number of poems and texts, like William Butler Yeats’s “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” The S in isle is silent, so it’s pronounced [ ahyl ].
Another literary term that features a silent S is viscount, from—what else—French (are you sensing a theme here yet?). You can come across viscounts in all kinds of 19th-century literature, although not so much in real life. A viscount is “a nobleman next below an earl or count and next above a baron.” These days, they are mostly found in contemporary historical fiction like the Bridgerton series. If you do happen to ever talk to a viscount, however, you should know the title is correctly pronounced [ vahy-kount ], not “vess-count.”
Our final tricky French example is ennui, “a feeling of utter weariness and discontent resulting from satiety or lack of interest; boredom.” Native English speakers tend to drag out this word as ” eh-new-ee.” In English, though, ennui is pronounced [ ahn-wee ] or [ ahn-wee ]. (According to some, this is also the sound French police sirens make.)
It seems only fair to include an example of a French speaker being tripped up by an English word. According to a popular Tweet about the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, he had trouble with a certain word:
“A professor of mine went to go hear Derrida speak once. The entire talk was about cows; everyone was flummoxed but listened carefully, and took notes about…cows. There was a short break, and when Derrida came back, he was like, “I’m told it is pronounced ‘chaos.’”
Oops! And ironic, given the meaning of chaos, “a state of utter confusion or disorder; a total lack of organization or order.” This word is correctly pronounced [ key-os ].
An epiphany is “a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something, usually initiated by some simple, homely, or commonplace occurrence or experience.” It’s not a common experience in daily life, and it’s a word you’re more likely to see in a book or on a calendar. This is what leads many to pronounce it “epi-fanny.” Kind of hilarious, but unfortunately the A in epiphany is a soft, not a hard A sound: [ ih-pif–uh-nee ].
If you’ve mispronounced any of these words, you can rest easy knowing you’re not alone. And, next time you come across a word you’re unfamiliar with, you can always check Dictionary.com to double-check the pronunciation. Happy reading!