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Words easily confused (or misspelled) #8


We get an awful lot of stories in which fluorescent is misspelled florescent. Presumably partly because it's another one of those misspellings that a spellchecker won't catch, since florescence means "a state or period of flourishing."

I'm obliquely reminded to mention an interesting misspelling/mispronunciation: some years back, two friends of mine (who I went to high school with in Palo Alto) referred to someone's "sorrid past." They were really surprised to hear that the word they meant was spelled and pronounced sordid. (I may be misremembering; it's possible that one or both of them had already found out how it was really spelled, before we had this conversation.) We never did figure out where they'd both learned it as sorrid. And this came up again recently, when someone else who also grew up in Palo Alto casually used the word sorrid in conversation. (In this recent case the person did know the word sordid when I mentioned it, though.) So now I'm wondering if this is a Palo Alto thing, or if everyone learns it that way. Kinda like frustum, which even computer-graphics professionals tend to believe is spelled and pronounced frustrum.

My own primary example of that kind of thing was the word stasis. I encountered the word many times (usually in the phrase stasis field) as a kid, but I always read it as statis, presumably related to static and other words having to do with stillness. The first time I noticed the real spelling, probably in a Niven book, I thought smugly that it was a typo; I was shocked and distressed when I learned that I'd just been misreading it for years.

I think what all this comes back to is just how easy it is to perceive what you expect to perceive.

(And in accordance with Hartman's Law of Prescriptivist Retaliation, there was a typo in this entry for several years: "My own primarily example". Fixed in 2007.)


And what you're seeing here, of course, is the mechanism by which dialects emerge. Arguably "sorrid" is the proper Palo Alto dialectual pronunciation of "sordid".

A dialect becomes a language when it has an army and a navy, give or take a few other political and religious issues. When, though, does a set of local idiolects become a dialect?

The view from here in düütschsprochige Switzerland is interesting -- here where there is no non-dialectual language in common oral usage. So you fully expect everyone you work with, for instance, to have a totally different way of pronouncing (and spelling, if they ever wrote it down) every word.

That Ben, exhibiting his erudition again...

This also reminds me of a bitter argument I had with someone over the phrase "You've got another think coming." The full phrase is "If you think that, you've got another think coming." He insisted vehemently that it was "...another thing coming." Despite my explanation of the joke inherent in the poor grammar of the original phrase and my explanation of English phonological processes messing with his perception of the /th/i/n/k/o/m/i/ng/ word boundary, he would be damned if he would admit he'd heard the phrase wrong.

It's a weird linguisitic argument when Billy Idol is one of your sources.

And as both reader and editor, I'm very tired of spell-checker copy editing. ("Take a new tact" etc.)

And of course, then, there's the 'propagation of error' factor.

Out of sheer curiousity, I looked up a few of the words that medical professionals toss around all the time:

Fomite, which is commonly pronounced 'foh-MYTE', is actually supposed to be pronounced 'FOH-mit', and plural .

Nares, which we commonly use as the plural for 'nostrils' (can't have you guys figuring out what we're talking about, after all), is usually written in singular form as 'nare'. Also incorrect: this should be 'naris'.

Huh. Jay, I've always heard it and said as "you've got another thing coming", not think, but now that I think about it, think makes more sense.

One of my own bugaboos that I finally overcame several years ago is using "antidote" when I mean "anecdote". I blame the way Hoosiers pronouce both words for my confusion -- neither word is pronounced with consonants in the middle in that state, making both of them "annie - dote".

"Another think coming" is an old standby over on alt.usage.english. See the FAQ entry for more info, including a surprising result from Merriam-Webster.

More generally, see the alt.usage.english FAQ for lots and lots of similar items. And see the alternative FAQ for some cute related items not to be taken seriously, plus a bunch of in-jokes that I don't get 'cause I never read the newsgroup regularly. There's only so many times I can read the same grammar arguments before I get bored.

Anyway, my point was meant to be that the regular FAQ is a wellspring of excellent information and useful opinions on all sorts of grammar and usage points. Highly recommended.

Btw, for more on the pronunciations used by medical professionals, see one of my wordplay columns, G Is for Grab-Bag.

I think what all this comes back to is just how easy it is to perceive what you expect to perceive.

Of everything you've said here, this seems the most important. All the discussion of wars, Iraq, religions, bias, chimp/ape species -- the most recent threads tangling aacorss the blogs I read -- it applies to each.

The "think vs. thing" error drives me up the wall (figuratively, of course)! I hear so many of my students say it as "thing" and I always correct them. But I also always have an argument on my hands with them about it. They are adamant that it is "thing!"

Another error that I have heard crop up in the last decade or so is the confusion between "itch" and "scratch," and this drives me even more up that figurative wall than the above one! My students very often say that they are "itching" their arm (for example) and while saying this they are digging at it furiously with their fingernails. I immediately yell, "NO! You are SCRATCHING your arm, not itching it! Itch is the feeling you have; scratch is what you do to get rid of it!" They almost invariably look at me with a dazed look on their faces and say "HUH?!?" TEENAGERS!!!

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