A crooked pronunciation


We’ve all come across words that when read quickly can appear to have one pronunciation, but in fact have a totally different one, because the wrong one shows that the structure of the word has been misread. Two famous such words are “misled” and “underfed”, pronounced /ˈmaɪzÉ™ld/ and /ÊŒnˈdɜːft/ respectively. Because they look like perfectly well-formed past tenses, small children may well misinterpret the division of these words into their constituent parts as ‘misle’ and ‘underf’ + past marker, instead of ‘mis’+’lead’ and ‘under’+’feed’.

Well, I was surprised this morning to hear the well-respected Julie Meyer, CEO and founder of Ariadne Capital, say on the “Today” programme, that the reputation of the banking industry had gone /ˈɔːri/. Again, the word is a perfectly well formed adverb or adjective, like many others that end in ‘-y’, but it has nothing to do with ‘awe’: the structure is ‘a’+’wry’.


  1. I learned most of my vocabulary from books before ever hearing it spoken, and as such I pronounced aw-ry instead of a-wry. (I also distinguished “chaste” from “chased” by pronouncing the former to rhyme with “past”.)

  2. Jack Windsor Lewis writes:

    I was surprised, Graham, to see you referring to ‘underfed’ as a ‘famous’ example of a word some folk tend to misinterpret the spelling of. New to me. Anyway I agree with your impression that ‘misled’ is. And I’d add that, altho /maɪzld/ is suggested by that spelling to some, others may want to take it as /mɪzld/. I once her·d it claimed that some speakers, in the past at least, have had /mɪzld/ as a genuine dialectal past of ‘mislead’. I think this must’ve been mistaken. Joseph Wright’s great six-volume English Dialect Dictionary of 1898, however, did contain an entry at mizzle “to mystify a person; to give him wrong information” quoted from an account of Shropshire and Herefordshire dialect.

    I wasnt quite so surprised as you were that the distinguisht American born businesswoman Julie Meyer shdve got the wrong idea of how ‘awry’ is to be pronounced despite the fact that she’s an English literature graduate and an ex EFL teacher etc. I’ve come across other very well educated and intelligent people with similar misconceptions. I think the reason is that ‘awry’ is a bookish word that very few people hear used in conversation. Meeting the word only in books people tend to guess its pronunciation in childhood and subsequently dont happen to realise that they’ve made a mistake. The most famous other person I’ve noticed getting it wrong was the late ex Etonian musician Humphrey Lyttelton whose version of it was /ɔː`raɪ/.

    Anyone who may’ve liked this ‘thread’ can find more of the same at my Blogs 049, 356 and 383 at http://www.yek.me.uk/



  3. Jack – I think that we assume that if we know something, everybody must know it, and if we don’t know, then it’s relatively unknown. I’m sure that both attitudes are equally untenable!

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