Mr. Pronunciation

I’m one of those people you might hear about from time to time. One of those people who learned a lot of stuff from books, before being told about or taught about that stuff in person. These people sometimes pronounce things incorrectly or even think things incorrectly (which, in fairness, is harder to spot).

I started reading when I was young but, more to the point, I started reading fairly substantial things when I was young. Not so much serious literary content. More serious adult-oriented content. I don’t mean rumpy-pumpy stuff, calm down. I mean adult stories with adult themes and adult language and adult… stuff. 

My parents did their best to oversee the films and TV that I had access to as a kid, regularly packing me off to bed whenever unsuitable stuff came on. But they never seemed to make the connection that books and comics could have adult stuff in them too. So I got a pretty free run there. In the period 1974-1975, when I was eleven, I was reading things like ‘Papillion’ and ‘Jaws’. I was sick in bed when Spike Milligan’s second volume of war memoirs came out and I asked Mum to go and buy it for me, which she did. After I finished it, she found a copy of ‘The Dice Man’ and gave me that to devour. As soon as I was well-enough, I took a spade and buried that one in the back garden round the side of the garden shed.

All of this ‘older-reading’ has served me pretty well, I think. I’m fairly good with words, if only in a slightly common and unintelligent way. But I often wonder about how my perception of the world has been tinged by all the things I read and perhaps didn’t fully understand. I remember reading ‘Jaws’ and not knowing what a lesbian was but sort-of figuring it out from the context of the dialogue. “Were there lesbians in Jaws?” I hear you ask, never guessing you would have posed that question today. To which I reply, “Yes there were.” I also remember being surprised that the three characters on the boat used such colourful and inventive combination words as ‘Co**su*cker’ and ‘Mo*therfu**ker’ and I justified to it myself by remembering that they were, after all, being menaced by a colossal man-eating shark and perhaps a little profanity was excusable.

Before all that adult reading, at ages 9 and 10, there was a lot of Enid Blytons and, quickly getting bored there, a lot of Agatha Christies too. There was comics too, when I could get them, and it was in these early reads that my literary misunderstandings first arose.

For instance:

I had no real idea of what a scowl looked like so, whenever Uncle Quentin scowled (which, as I recall, he did quite a lot), I would imagine him saying the word ‘scowl’ silently to himself and it was that palsied ‘lion-roar’ effect that Julian, Dick, Anne, George and Timmy the dog saw whenever they pissed him off. This was obviously not a thing that I had ever seen anyone do in real life but, I reasoned, Uncle Quentin lived in England, which was a long way off, and they probably did things quite differently over there.

Similarly, the type of laughing they did in the comics was not something I had any real-life experience of. I just tended to laugh, if the opportunity ever arose, but these characters chortled and sniggered, among other things. I assigned a sort of an onomatopoeic interpretation to these types of words, such that a chortle sounded just like it did written down on the page and the same went for a snigger. To tell you the truth, I still have no real concept of what these types of laughs sound like.

In Poirot books and also in the Poe stories I was reading at the time, men’s names were often assigned as ‘M. Poirot’ or ‘M. Hastings’ and this was a complete mystery to me. I just figured that’s what people called them – ‘M’ this and ‘M’ that. Sometimes, in things like Frankenstein or Dracula somebody might spend the night in the village of M_______. And, whereas I know now that this was a device to preserve the anonymity of the place, at the time I just thought it was a bloody strange name for a town and how did the poor postman manage?

My little misunderstandings do keep coming. I read nearly all of Harry Potter aloud to my kids and, in those early days before there were any movies, I really thought that Hermione should be pronounced ‘Her-mee-own-ey.’ Even after I learned the truth, I continued with this pronunciation, somewhat to the consternation of my kids but they soon learned to go with the flow.

These days we tend to delight in our little mispronunciations in our house. We even make up some to keep us on our toes. Prosecco will always be ‘Prosecute-oh’ in our parish even though we rarely see any of it.

This kind of verbal messing preserves an air of innocence while also perhaps injecting a hint of rebellion. It’s nostalgic too. It makes me think of those simpler times like that time in my first job in a posh restaurant when I asked two diners whether they might consider having some ‘Whores Doo-Vrez.’  You think I’m making that up but I’m not.

Keep reading!


Not Me said...

Enjoyed this. Even giggled and chortled a bit!

Anonymous said...

In to much pain to chortle or giggle, I am in A&E post a fall but I am smiling on the inside.

Jim Murdoch said...

I have to lower the tone of the conversation. Apologies in advance. Apart from religious literature (of which there were shelves and shelves) there was very little adult literature in our home for me to read, besides I really was not the voracious reader one expects a future writer to be as a child. Am still not much to my annoyance. The first adult literature I encountered problems understanding was pornography. Not that there was any of it in the house but eventually I stumbled across scraps of magazines on tips and other places I loved to rummage as a kid. The stories presented a confusing view of sex but I read every word even the ones I never understood and didn't know how to pronounce (and couldn't possibly ask anyone about), words like fel-lat-i-o and cunni-ling-u-is. The biggest problem I've had with books as an adult has been foreign (particularly Russian) names and my approach to them was to just remember the shape and not even attempt to pronounce the name. To this day I still don't know how to pronounce Meursault. I think I went with Mer-salt.

Anonymous said...

Hilarious! A neighbour always said ‘whores devoors’ 😁🤦‍♀️

Carrie Berry said...

I can so relate to this being a precocious reader of everything I could get my hands on. For years I thought determined was pronounced "Detter Mined" and my grandmother regularly served Horse Doovers at her parties.