My college library had a special “Word Room” dedicated to etymology. It was one of my favorite places on campus. When I had free time, I would take books down and just read about words. I formed a lifelong addiction to word books, which is why I was drawn to You’re Saying It Wrong by Ross and Kathryn Petras, a brother and sister writing team who have a comfortable niche in collecting inspirational or ridiculous quotes into short, bite size books.
You’re Saying It Wrong is a breezy, conversational collection of words that are frequently mispronounced or misspelled because misheard. It is enjoyable and a fast and easy book to read. I particularly enjoyed a short piece on how the English pronounce all sorts of place names. We know they don’t pronounce all those syllables, but which ones do they pick out to say? It’s a mystery. So there is a list with such gems as Cholmondely, which is pronounced CHUM-lee. I would love even more examples because the British ability to erase multiple syllables in English is magical.
There are several similar collections, though that was my favorite. The ones explaining how to pronounce wines and the names of philosophers, composers, and fashion designers were less useful, but perhaps a lot of people don’t know how to pronounce cabernet sauvignon or Tchaikovsky?
I was thrilled they included “for all intents and purposes.” I swear if I hear “for all intensive purposes” one more time, someone will pay. It’s my pet peeve. It’s an eggcorn, a phrase or group of words that sound similar (like I scream and ice cream) and are used mistakenly. Eggcorn was coined recently by linguists who were bemused by someone spelling acorn that way. They realized there really was not a great word for that kind of mistake, except possibly mondegreen, oronym, or malapropism, but none of those classifications really fit. Most eggcorns are amusing, but this one makes no sense to me. Every time I hear it I wonder what would make a purpose intense? Instead of “Do you want to hurt me?” should Boy George sing “Do you really, really, really, really want to hurt me?”
I enjoyed some portions of the book and picked up a couple tidbits of information. We should say “champ at the bit” not “chomp at the bit,” for example. Champ means chewing or grinding, which is what horses do with the bit. It is more accurate and makes sense to save such a delicious word from obsolescence.
Some of it, though, is silly pedantry. Lord Byron’s character should be pronounced Don JEW-ahn, not Don Juan. Dr. Seuss should rhyme with voice, not goose. Seuss, himself, adopted the rhymes-with-goose pronunciation, so please don’t correct anyone who rhymes Seuss with goose. As to the Byronic pronunciation, it may suit the meter of the poem, but it sounds ignorant.
I thought the book was a bit erratic. There are several examples of mispronunciations that are so widespread, saying the word correctly will make you sound silly. That’s not what I was looking for. Then, sometimes they are seriously loosey-goosey, as in giving permission to mispronounce “chaise longue” while reminding us to be sure to spell it longue, not lounge. Now that is one where I think they should push for the correct pronunciation because if people pronounce it correctly, they may spell it correctly.
Throughout the book, they used their own system to explain how to pronounce the words rather than using a pronunciation guide even though we all learned how to use them in elementary school. This is not easier. Sometimes it is more confusing than helpful. Which brings us to Möbius (Moebius), as in Möbius strip. They say pronounce it “[MEUH(r)-bee-uhs]” Okay, but how to pronounce MEUH(r) remains a mystery. To further frustrate me, I googled “how to pronounce Möbius” and got a slew of links to YouTube videos. The first 18 pronounced it MOH which rhymes with toe which starts with T and that’s trouble, my friend, right here in River City.
Well, then I had to go to the Oxford English Dictionary, my final arbiter anytime I am unsure. And what did the Supreme Court of linguists recommend? Three different pronunciations. In the U.K., they might be saying [mœ-bee-uh s], but for the United States where this book is published, they came firmly down on that German mathematician’s toe, [moh–bee-uh s]
This left me feeling disappointed. There is a lack of consistency and rigor in their suggestions. I guess there is the pedant’s interest in knowing that the whole world is pronouncing it wrong, but that was not my interest. I did not understand their laissez-faire tolerance for mispronouncing chaise longue, an error that perpetuates a misspelling while trying to correct mispronunciations that are ubiquitous and perfectly acceptable to dictionary editors. This made it more of trivia book rather than a reference. It was enjoyable, but not reliable.
- You’re Saying It Wrong at Penguin Random House
- Publisher’s Weekly interview with Kathryn and Ross Petras