I recently learned that I’ve been mispronouncing the brand name of the seltzer water that has become suddenly ubiquitous. The stuff is not, as my pretentious assumptions had it, “La-CWAH.” Nope, it’s “La-CROY.” (“It rhymes,” the brand’s website helpfully informs me, “with ‘enjoy.’”) One of the beverage’s featured flavors may be pamplemousse; LaCroix, though, is an American product. Thus, with all due apology to the French (and also, this being America, no apology at all): La-CROY.
LaCroix is not one of the entries in You’re Saying it Wrong: A Pronunciation Guide to the 150 Most Commonly Mispronounced Words and Their Tangled Histories of Misuse, the latest book from Ross and Kathryn Petras, a brother-and-sister writing team. But the 180-page volume—a bloggy compendium of those words, featuring brief etymologies along with their correct pronunciations—does tell me, quite usefully, that “timbre” is pronounced “TAM-ber,” not “TIM-ber.” And that it’s “spit and image,” rather than “spitting image.” And “chaise longue” rather than “chaise lounge.” And “MIS-chuh-vus” rather than “mis-CHEE-vee-us.”
The tone in all this is light, as it has to be. The challenge with writing a book like this, the authors well realize, is that what you are selling, with it, is ultimately wordsplainy pedantry. You’re Saying it Wrong is—as The Awl put it, perfectly—“a booklet full of actuallies.”
Among its corrective pronunciations:
bánh mì: bahn MEE
bouillon: BOOL-yen or BOOL-yon (with a very light l sound)
endive: EN-dive or AHN-deev
Moët & Chandon: Mwett eh SHA(n)-doh
Ralph Lauren: LOR-uhn [not lor-EN]
Louboutin: loo-boo-TAH(n), with a soft n
Yves Saint Laurent: eev sahn LOR-uhn
Louis Vuitton: LOO-ee VWEE-tah(n), with a soft n
There’s much more along these lines—instructions ostensibly designed to make pronunciation a forte. (It’s pronounced “fort,” by the way.) And designed, too, to spare you the particular strain of embarrassment that results when you learn that you have been pretentiously mispronouncing the name of your already-pretentious sparkling water. You’re Saying It Wrong acknowledges that most modern of problems: the fact that so many of us learn words not by hearing them, but by reading them. The “prime reason” for their writing of it, the authors declare, cheekily, is “to help us all avoid that unpleasant mortification that ensues when we attempt to use one of the surprisingly large number of words that we have absolutely no idea how to say properly.”
But there’s another challenge with a book like this, even beyond the pesky problem of casual pedantry. A book, after all, is a solid, ink-bound thing; by its nature, it does not accommodate the kind of evolution that makes language, well, language. (“Words on the move” is how the linguist John McWhorter, in his latest book, describes the entire English lexicon.) A book about pronunciation, in particular—an attempt to capture a living, breathing, warm and changing thing within a physical artifact—will always whiff of Sisyphus’s stone.
The Petrases are aware of that challenge. “In many cases,” they note, “so many people mispronounce a word that the new (originally wrong) pronunciation slowly becomes accepted … and sometimes even preferred.” They insist, though, that as that process takes place, there are clear lines between the correct and the incorrect. They note, in the book’s introduction, that 47 percent of Americans are “irritated” by mispronunciations and, as a result, correct their family and friends. In Britain, they add, “a whopping 41 percent go on the attack and stop a conversation to correct someone else.” The authors note, too, that 63 percent of millennials have confessed to correcting (what they perceive to be) other people’s pronunciation errors. Language may be constantly changing; what doesn’t change, apparently, is the number of people who insist that it stay the same.