Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Things Best Left Unsaid

I embarrassed myself the other day in front of a respected fellow knowledge worker by mispronouncing the word "renege". To make matters worse, my co-worker's method of notification was simply to use the word in conversation later in a different context, but this time with the correct pronunciation quite deliberately spoken.

It's not a unique occurrence; throughout my life I've mispronounced words. At times it may have been because of my estuary twang, at other times simply because I'd never heard the word spoken before - a symptom of reading more than you speak, or certainly reading in literary languages that don't constitute everyday conversation.

But why get renege wrong? I've been kicking myself and trawling my memory as to when exactly it started. Did I ever know how to pronounce the damn word?

I've traced it back to an adaptation of the British tendency to ridicule words with a hint of foreign (mostly French) roots. Examples from my own comedy repertoire that require incorrect stress and/or a dramatic flourish include Chesham Bois [pron. Cheshum Bwuh - as if the commuter suits are pretending they are still en Provence] and ménage à trois [requires an extra long second vowel sound and a fixed gaze from beneath slightly hooded eyes].

But what frightened me most about "renege" was that I had ceased to remember that I was mispronouncing it. Over years of use I had lost the dramatic pause on the second vowel sound, the roll of the eyes, the well timed curl of the mouth, that all let the listener know that I knew I was mispronouncing it.

And the shocker is that due to my core silliness and insecurity (which I'd previously considered part of my charm) alongside a failing memory, I have realised there are untold language landmines out there ready to destroy any vestiges of a reputation I have for possessing even an ounce of intelligence.

So in conclusion, this is a personal plea, that if you ever hear me mispronouncing a word or phrase and are in any doubt as to whether I know I am doing so, please quietly and firmly let me know as soon as possible before I make a tit of myself again.

Just give me a week or so before you give me the lowdown on my spelling, grammar and general vocabulary, a girl can only take so much humiliation in one week.

3 comments:

richard said...

It's with a hard g is it? I confess never to have been very sure myself.

Slightly more weirdly: I was well into adulthood before I realised that the printed word "misled" wasn't pronounced "mild", thinking it a cousin of "aisle" and, er .. other words like that (are there any?). And this depsite the fact that I correctly pronounced the word misled quite happily in conversation. To this day the printed word "misled", pronounced "mild", coexists quite happily with the spoken word "misled" pronounced er .. misled.

Oh and the other thing: "off your own bat" or "off your own back?". My response to hearing either is to feel convinced that it's the other.

Coming off the fence: bat?

Luvverly blogging. Thanks.

LouBrown said...

If it's not correctly pronounced with a hard g, I've wasted both our time and energy.

Matthew said...

I have a problem with 'mien'. To whit -

Bearing or manner, especially as it reveals an inner state of mind: “He was a Vietnam veteran with a haunted mien” (James Traub).

I thought it was pron. 'me-yen' - (first part of mi(ao) and then en). Turns out you should be pron. 'mean'. Imagine my chagrin as I fumbled it in front of some Notting Hill bien pensants fashionistas!