It’s happened to us all. That moment when a word–a perfectly innocuous, everyday word–suddenly looks weird.
It happened to me the other day. The word was “dirt.” I wrote it down and suddenly it looked misspelled. I stared at it. I tried “durt,” but that was even worse. Dirt. Dirt.
Oddly, when I wrote “dirty,” that looked okay, but “dirt” still looked…wrong. Truncated. Too tall. Too narrow.
Last year, I had a similar episode with the word “schedule.” We haven’t gotten along, since.
Thankfully, these episodes are transitory. Eventually, usually within an hour, the word loses its alien quality and becomes once more a regular, banal word from my daily lexicon.
Except, that is, for the “odd ducks.”
There are some words that always look wrong to me. Whenever I see them, I always do a double-take. They are stumbling blocks over which I trip every single time.
It began with the word “awry.”
I read a lot when I was a kid, much more than my classmates. In grammar school I mostly read non-fiction books about nature, science, and ecology. In middle school, I began reading novels. Not knowing what I liked, I cross-referenced movies I’d seen with books from my parents’ shelves. One of the first “grown-up” novels I remember reading was The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone. Leon Uris’s Exodus was another that I read and liked.
Since I was still a kid, I still hung out with kids. I didn’t hang around with the grown-ups, making small talk. My speech, my vocabulary, were those of a child. The books I was reading, though, they used were the words and syntax of adults.
That’s why, when I first encountered the word “awry,” I didn’t know how it was pronounced. I’d never heard it spoken, and had no idea how it sounded. This didn’t faze me, though. After all, it’s only four letters long. How else would you pronounce it?
And so, from the age of 11 to the age of about 16, I went though life pronouncing “awry” like this: AW-ree. It wasn’t until deep in my high school days that I actually heard someone use the phrase “and then it all went terribly awry,” pronouncing the word “uh-RYE.” I remember my puzzlement, and then the moment when the etymological penny dropped, and I realized it was the word “wry” with an “a-“prefix. I thanked my stars that I hadn’t ever used the word in conversation, and had escaped the ridicule that my vocabularically superior classmates would have heaped upon my head.
Still, to this day, when I read the word, the little voice in my head says “AW-ree,” taunting me, keeping me humble.
Etymologically, “awry” is the oldest of my odd ducks. It’s been around, unchanged, since the late 14th century. Those Old English holdovers can be tricky.
“Doable” is the next oldest, first appearing in the mid-15th century. This one my inner reading voice always pronounces “DOUGH-bull” though sometimes I catch myself halfway through and get a quasi-trisyllablic “DOUGH-a-bull.” Either way, it always takes me two attempts before I get “DOO-a-bull”.
“Reuse,” around since 1850, is another one. Maybe it’s too much familiarity with German (which I studied in high school…I have no idea why) and French (which I should have studied in high school bit didn’t), but regardless, my initial internal pronunciation of this word is either a Teutonic “royce” as if there’s an implied umlaut over the “u,” or a Francophonic “rooze” like the last part of the word “chartreuse.” Again, it’s always a jolt, and then I go back to the beginning to read it as “re-use.”
The last one on my short list of odd ducks is of relatively recent mintage. “Biopic” showed up in 1951, and for my difficulty with it I blame my familiarity with scientific terms (all that non-fiction reading as a child). First time out, the word is always “bye-AW-pic,” rhyming with “myopic.” I usually don’t even go back and re-read this word. A concatenation of abbreviations, Bio(graphical motion) Pic(ture) is much too silly, and deserves to rhyme with a synonym for nearsightedness.
There are others that trip me up now and again. “Resume” and the unaccented form of “résumé” often cause confusion, but proper context usually helps.
So, those are my odd ducks. Any of you out there have others?