Word Fail Flavors

by Translation Guy on October 1, 2012

I am the king of mispronunciation. This would be embarrassing for a guy in the language business if I was the kind of guy who got embarrassed. It bothers me that it costs me money in lost business, I think, since prospects shy away from knuckleheads. But at least I’m multilingual about it. French, German, Turkish, Chinese and Nahuatl are all languages I’ve studied without mastering even the most basic skills of pronunciation, let alone comprehension.

However, English is the weakest link in my linguistic chain of error, and it’s fatal to my spelling. Worst of all is my inability to pronounce “translate,” as in “1-800-Translate,” the name of my company. I’m apt to slip in an “a” behind the “s” for a little bonus syllable.

When we first got the number, and before I memorized it (that number again is 1-800-872-6752), I used to sound it out on the dial pad, and I kept getting this sex-talk number. I thought there was a problem with the switch until I figured out I was inserting an extra digit for that bonus “a.”

But I am not alone. Over the years, we’ve occasionally gotten the same complaint from callers who encountered the identical problem. It makes me happy to know I am not the only moron. We are legion. Plus, they are funny.

Jen Doll of The Atlantic has drawn up a list of all the different ways people get language wrong, most of which she cribbed from the most excellent Language Log. Here is my CliffsNotes version of her CliffsNotes version. (Full disclosure: Until I checked in Wikipedia, I had always called them Cliff Notes. Further disclosure: I’m likely to forget the correct spelling/pronunciation as soon as I post this, and go to my grave muttering “Cliff Notes.”)

Here is Doll’s malapropism classification system:

Eggcorns: From “acorn,” an idiosyncratic word substitution that arises because the speaker has heard a word incorrectly, as in “nip it in the butt.”

Mondegreen: Misinterpretation of a phrase in a way that gives it new meaning, usually from a song or poem. For example, Robert Palmer’s “Might as well face it, you’re addicted to love” has apparently been heard by many as “Might as well face it, you’re a dick with a glove.” 

Confusables: Similar words easily confused (especially by me) such as “affect/effect,” “accept/except” and “it’s/its.”

Doublets: Words of different meaning from a common branch, as in “canal/channel” and “suit/suite.” This is tougher for non-native speakers.

Janus Words: A single word with opposite meanings, such as “clip” or “cull.” Fortunately, there aren’t too many; unfortunately, they include some of the most commonly used words in the English language, as in “off,” “cool” and “fix.” Definitions here.

Snowclones: An assembly line quotation, as in “If Eskimos have N words for snow, X surely have Y words for Z” or “X is the new Y.” These aren’t really mistakes, and I love using them myself. Cliché is an art unappreciated by snooty wordsmiths who think they are just so damn clever. Original Language Log post here.

Misquotation: As in “Play it again, Sam.” Bogart never said that in Casablanca. He actually said, “Play it.” And there’s “Beam me up, Scotty!” Shatner never said it. But just try saying it correctly, and see how it goes over. My theory is that some mistakes are better left uncorrected (which explains the spelling on this blog).

I urge readers to take a moment to share their own favorites.


  1. Karen says:

    I really do have to thank you for this post, it’s a live saver, as I am a serial mangler of the english language, and it’s starting to become embarassing that a man as old as I am can’t master his native tounge.

  2. He Hate Me says:

    English is the hardest language to master I’ve heard, don’t be too hard on yourself. Most people are pretty forgiving anyway, expect for the pedantic ones out there, and they’re annoying anyways, so who cares?

  3. I’ve always found things like this incredibly annoying, it seems that most English speakers don’t understand their own language. I put it down to abysmal teaching, more time should be dedicated to ensuring proper pronounciation, grammar, etc.

  4. David Madow says:

    People really say “Eggcorns?” I mean, I’ve had some mispronounciations in my time, but that one just seems ridiculous. That said, great read, I laughed out loud at the Robert Palmer joke.

  5. Kirk never said “Beam me up, Scotty”, Really? I feel this is a life changing moment somehow.

  6. Is English really that hard to master, I mean, I know every once in a while you run across a word you don’t know, but if you use a word shouldn’t you know how to use it correctly?

  7. Misquotations are the basis of some of the most inspiring words in the english language, things would be boring if everything was done correctly all the time.

  8. Lucy says:

    I’m a fan of snowclones myself, actually I’m a fan of playing around with English as much as possible. I find that people take the rules far too seriously, and the language should be able to grow organically.

  9. This is one of the best articles I’ve ever run across, really, truly, thank you,

  10. Erin says:

    I think one of the greatest things about the English language is its complexity and depth, also its ever evolving nature. It truly is the most flexible, useful language there is.

    • Ken says:

      I always thought English was shallow and trite, but maybe that’s just me.

    • Pierre says:

      Dear Erin,

      There are approximately 6800 living languages in today’s world.

      Are you actually saying that you have been able to compare these 6800 living languages?

      I’m “truly” impressed…

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