Monday, February 2, 2009

Words, Words, Words

The biggest disappointment of my childhood was that no one would teach me to read until I went to school. And then, when I finally entered kindergarten, I discovered that I'd still have to wait another year. In those days, kindergarten confined itself to preschool activities such as smearing tempera paint onto newsprint with big clumsy brushes and learning to be away from one's mother for half a day. I felt rather superior to the other children because I knew how to write my name. I'd managed to wrangle that and the alphabet out of my mother. But she was afraid to teach me more for fear she'd do it wrong and ruin my academic career. (What can I say? It was an age of reverence for Experts.) I felt cheated all over again when I went to college and discovered that many of my friends had learned to read long before first grade! In fact, my husband-to-be couldn't even remember learning to read -- that's how young he'd been.

At any rate, I was finally initiated into the mysteries of written language and the monosyllabic world of Dick & Jane. "Look, Spot. Oh, look. Look and see." My parents have a home movie of my two younger brothers unhappily sitting beside me on the couch as I proudly read aloud them from my reader. Every so often they'd try to wriggle off , but I'd pull them back into position telling them, "Just wait -- the good part is coming."

I don't think they stuck around because I have no more memories of reading aloud to anyone except in school. Like most children who love to read and have access to a library, my reading level was soon far above my grade level though my everyday speech did not reflect my reading vocabulary. I had not yet read Anne of Green Gables, but like Anne, I already knew that children who used unusual words were either laughed at or thought uppity. Besides, I didn't even know how to pronounce many of the words I commonly read. After all, I'd never heard anyone say them! I'd been taught sight reading in first grade, so "sounding it out" was not my first response when meeting a new word. And though I later acquired phonics, I was reading too fast and furiously in those days to apply it or to look up the word in a dictionary. Besides, who can ever make heads or tails of those dictionary pronunciation keys?

Consequently, I mentally pronounced "melancholy" as meh-latch-o-lee for quite a long time. And the latter pronunciation still has a more poignant feel to me. And even when I got the vowels right in a new word, I'd usually misplace the accent.

Even now, I still discover long-held mispronunciations. I've always pronounced "victuals" as vik-tchuals. Thanks to's Word of the Day, I've just discovered that it's actually vit-ulz. How disappointing! I've seen "vittles" in print before which, as it turns out, is a variant spelling, but I'd thought it was a separate word. What a cheat! "Victuals" looks so Latinate, yet sounds so Appalachian. (Actually, it turns out that its original Anglo-French spelling vitaylle was changed by 1523 to conform to its Latin root, victualia. But the pronunciation remains vittle.)

Which is why I love online dictionaries! I click on the little speaker icon and it tells me how to say the word. Sometimes I sit there clicking it over and over, trying to overwrite a mispronunciation from my youth.

(I subscribe to two Word of the Day services,'s and's. Both include definitions, a little etymology, and examples of the featured word used in a sentence. provides more example sentences than Merriam-Webster, but both are good.)


Warren said...

I am one of those people who likes to knowingly pronounce words phonetically. Victuals.

Hmm. A few others...

Draught, Welsh Rarebit, Sangfroid.


Sherwood said...

I did not know about about victuals!


Catholic Bibliophagist said...

Discovering the correct pronunciation of "draught" was one of the greatest disappointments of my reading career. My mind's ear still hears it as rhyming with "ought."

entropy said...

I always pronounced (probably still will) it VIC-tuals.

I pronounced recalcitrant with two hard 'c's before someone corrected me and I still say it that way in my head when I read.

Darwin said...

Oh, you slay me. "Vittles" and "draft" are the correct pronunciations?

I may have to be a non-conformist on these. I can't reconcile myself to seeing the words reduced so.

D. G. D. Davidson said...

Victuals and draught are the same for me. Will be very careful in pronouncing them in the the future.

Of course, I used to pronounce hors d'oeuvres as "whores davores" and I still think that sounds better.

Darwin said...

I used to have it on good authority it was pronounced "horse doovers". :-)

Mom said...

Vittles! The pronunciation of "chimera" was a surprise to me. Love those on-line dictionaries!