Words With Fails

I’ve been reading for as long as I can remember.

I know that sounds a little odd, but some people remember the process of learning how to read. They remember the frustrations they dealt with, the triumph of finally reading a book on their own, the teachers that helped and the teachers that hindered.  I could read in preschool. I have no memory of not being able to read.

That being said, I had a pretty extensive knowledge of words when I was younger. Combined with the fact that I was reading chapter books by first grade and that my parents spoke to me like I could understand them [because I could] instead of dumbing things down for me, I was constantly absorbing new vocabulary words.

However, this meant that I was kind of on my own as far as definitions and pronunciations of words I encountered in books.  I hated halting the flow of my reading to dig out the huge dictionary in the office of my house [back in the days before wiktionary.com], so I would usually just work with what I was given as far as context clues and word families.  It was extremely rare that I was so hung up on the definition of a word that I couldn’t continue until I asked someone what it meant.

This did, on occasion, result in me having false knowledge.  It’s one of those downfalls of being your own teacher.  I was okay with making a snap judgment about a word’s definition or pronunciation and moving on, never realizing that these quick decisions would eventually blend together with actual knowledge and I would quickly forget what I had made up and what I had learned.

I find it quite jarring when something you always assumed to be true is, in fact, not true at all.

The first example of this that sticks out in my mind is about the word “capsized”.  I first encountered it at a very young age in a Goosebumps novel.  They were rowing a little boat onto a dark, mysterious lake when their vessel capsized. Hm. Capsized. I’ve never heard that word before. I know what a cap is. Does it mean the boat turned into the size of a cap? Let’s read on.  The passengers of this rowboat found themselves in the water, clamoring for air. Yeah, I suppose if a boat you were sitting in shrunk considerably, you’d have nowhere to go but into the water.

Done and done. Capsized, defined.

Now, if I had been reading a Babysitter’s Club book at the time, my conclusion would have been quite different. I would have questioned the reality of this and probably would have either come to a different conclusion or felt the need to ask about it.  As it turns out “capsized” is not exactly a popular term – or maybe I just don’t read a lot of stories that involve boats – and I didn’t encounter this word again for a few years.  It was only then that I realized that capsized referred to the very un-supernatural event of a boat flipping over.  Fortunately, I had never spoken aloud what I thought was an understanding of the word, so it was just a quiet, inward embarrassment.  But embarrassment nonetheless.

As things like this happen to me in my older years, the embarrassment runs deeper. The possibility that I have improperly pronounced a word or used it incorrectly in conversation without realizing it grows greater.

Very recently, I was listening to the Sweeney Todd soundtrack. I was enjoying the sound of Johnny Depp’s voice wailing on about wanting to slice people’s throats open with his barber shears when something caught my attention. What did he just say? I rewound a little. [Is it still called rewinding on an iPod?]

Nor ten men, nor a hundred can ah-sway-ge me!


No, no, no.

Could it be? Surely this is a different word. It can’t be the word assuage. For that beautiful and magnificent word is pronounced ”ah-swah-j”.  Rhymes with Taj or mirage.  Sure, I’ve only encountered this word in text, but it’s such a wonderful word with such a specific meaning.

I felt deceived. Like my whole life was a lie.

But, as my mother would put it, it was a self-inflicted lie.

It can go the other way too. There are words that I knew that I had only heard before, never seen written down, that blew my mind once I saw them for the first time.  The first instance of this I remember rocking my world was the word ‘prerogative’.  I blame Britney Spears for that one. Who knew that extra ‘r’ was there, right after the ‘p’?! It’s extremely difficult to add that extra ‘r’ into the pronunciation of that word once you’ve been singing saying it without it for so many years.  Another one is the word ‘sordid’.  I loved the phrase, and had heard it and used it a million times, but I always thought it was “a sorted affair”.  This was a more recent discovery, though I have a nagging feeling I learned that once before and chose to forget.  Or thought they were used interchangeably.

These are things that most people are able to take in stride. “Oh, I didn’t know”, end of conversation, moving on. Not me. I feel violated and deluded and tend to sort of flip out. I do research on the word to make sure this new revelation is correct. I try to figure out where this injustice began and if it was my own damn fault or if I can blame someone else.

This past weekend, with the help of my mother and my friend, we got to the root of this panic-stricken response.

I was little, probably about five or six. The adults in my family were sitting around my grandparents’ kitchen table, chatting excitedly.  As is common when they get together, there was much joking and addictive laughter that just increased with time.  I approached the jolly table, barely a head taller than it, to request a snack.  When my question was met by howling laughter, my face turned red and I asked what was so funny.  My aunt asked, “What did you just say?”

“Can I have some prenzels?”

More laughter.



My mother took a deep breath to control her laughter and wiped a tear from her eye.

“Sweetie, you know it’s pretzel not prenzel, right?”

I went pale. My confused expression turned stoney as I waited for the laughter to die down.

“No! Why didn’t you ever tell me? I’ve been saying it wrong all the time and you just let me?!”

“I thought you just couldn’t pronounce it, I didn’t want to make you feel bad!”

The laughter started up again and I felt flush with anger.  I felt sick. My own mother let me walk around speaking incorrectly all these years. YEARS!

When I first recounted this story to my mother, reminding her of the betrayal she once bestowed upon me, I was sure I was at least 8 years old.  She told me that she also remembers this day very clearly and I was definitely no older than 6. In fact, she’s pretty sure I was closer to 4. I was definitely at an age where it was perfectly reasonable for her to have assumed I couldn’t pronounce the word and that it was adorable to hear me say it incorrectly.  I did not find this realization adorable at all.

So I believe that this is why, when I find out I’ve been writing persay instead of per se or pronouncing a very popular female character’s name wrong, I feel all confused inside.

If you see something written here that seems a little off kilter or if you hear me saying something that sounds a little odd, please, for the love of God, let me know before I embarrass myself. But please don’t be too cruel about it.

I’m sensitive.


~ by Valerie Anne on 05/12/2011.

2 Responses to “Words With Fails”

  1. My two most memorable moments like that have been with “chasm” and “rendezvous”. I had read and heard the word rendezvous before, but thought they were two different words that were synonymous. Luckily mom corrected me when I was around 13, so I didn’t maintain the misperception into adulthood.

    “Chasm” was a different story. I am embarrassed to think of how many times I probably said that word in front of well-educated people before one of my college friends corrected me. To this day I avoid saying it in protest of its very odd pronunication.

    • Those are definitely tricky ones! And yes, I do not use the word “assuage” out loud in protest either. Luckily that one’s pretty easy to avoid! haha

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