The perils of a large vocabulary

I have a pretty good vocabulary, most of which comes from reading extensively. This is more apparent in my writing than in my everyday speech. I think there’s something about the writing process that allows me to access and utilize more of the words I know. Also, there’s spell check (which has just kindly informed me that “spellcheck” is not a word).

The biggest factor that prevents me from using all the polysyllabic words that I know in everyday speech is that I can’t pronounce them properly. I used to think that this problem was mine alone; surely everyone else in the world knew that “superfluous” was not pronounced “super-flous” and didn’t get tripped up when they tried to say the word “miscellaneous.”

Then I went to college and found out that this wasn’t true at all. One of the most intelligent people in my classes would be discussing the finer points of a novel, for example, and completely butcher the pronunciation of a certain word. I can’t tell you how many times someone in a literature class  would attempt to read a quotation and stumble over some of the words.

Now, these people could define these words in a heartbeat if you asked them, and could probably use them quite seamlessly in a piece of writing. But when it came to speaking these words aloud, they couldn’t do it. “These are my people,” I remember thinking.

One of my English professors claims:

One of the occupational hazards of being an English major is that you learn most of your vocabulary from books, so you will always be in danger of mispronouncing the words you know.

I don’t think this danger is confined strictly to English majors, although we might be more prone to it. It can happen to anyone who reads a lot and picks up new words from context clues or looks up unfamiliar words in the dictionary without hearing them spoken aloud.

Perhaps you’ve heard the joking definition of a synonym that says “A synonym is a word you use when you can’t spell the word you want.” Well, for me, a synonym is a word I use when I’m not 100% sure I can say the word I want 🙂

It’s not so bad, though. Usually, the worst thing that happens is that I provide my friends with something funny to laugh at. I just tell them it’s one of the perils of a large vocabulary.

What’s the strangest word you’ve ever mispronounced? Is your vocabulary larger than the number of words you can say?

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7 thoughts on “The perils of a large vocabulary

  1. I’m a victim of this all the time! Glad I’m not alone 🙂
    I think it was because as a kid I read voraciously and learned words by “sounding them out.” To this day sometimes I totally mispronounce a common word and people look at me weird and judge my English-major-ness 🙂

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