Some perfectly good words that leave me speechless

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The Independent Online
AT THE age of about nine, I took it into my head to read to my mother while she was ironing. I thought it was unfair that she should have to do anything so boring as ironing without relief. It seemed to me that being read to would be solace for her. So my poor old mother had to listen to the whole of Through the Looking-Glass, read by me.

The disadvantage of reading books out loud at the age of nine or 10 is that you keep coming across words you don't know, especially if the book is written by Lewis Carroll.

I had never come across Jabberwocks, and gyring and gimbling, and mimsy borogoves before. (I didn't realise it at the time, but I was never to come across them again.)

However, there were other, more ordinary words that I had not come across before, and one of these was 'determine'.

I remember this very clearly, because when I saw it for the first time I had about 10 seconds in which to guess how it was pronounced, and I guessed - wrongly, as it turned out - that it was pronounced to rhyme with 'better mine'. So all through Through the Looking-Glass, I said that Alice was absolutely dettermined, and as my mother didn't protest, I thought I had got it right.

A little while later, my father asked me to explain this new word dettermined that I had suddenly started to use. I explained.

'Ah,' he said. 'Right meaning, wrong pronunciation. It's pronounced determined.'

I was a bit humiliated at this. I asked my mother why she hadn't corrected me when I said it wrong. She said she hadn't really noticed. It was then that I realised that she hadn't really listened to any of Through the Looking-Glass at all when I had been reading to her, and I was so mortified that I refused to speak to her for at least 10 minutes.

That was wrong of me. I should have taken an oath instead to look up words to see how they should be pronounced. Anyone who learns words from books runs the risk of not being able to pronounce them correctly, or even recognisably; and to this day there are words that I have picked up from reading and have never ever used in conversation because I have no idea how they should be pronounced. Asafoetida is one. Pinochle is another. Poetaster is another. So is coccyx. I could have written letters gaily all day about the games of pinochle I had been in, or the foul smell of asafoetida needed to heal the bruised coccyx of many a poetaster. But I would never have risked talking about it.

(There were other words that, like 'determine', I guessed wrongly. For a while I thought that 'potsherd' was pronounced 'pot's herd', and it wasn't until a kindly teacher revealed that a 'sherd' or 'shard' was a fragment of pot that I saw how the word was formed. In the ensuing 35 years, I have never once needed to speak the word out loud. That's life.)

But the words I have always had the worst trouble with - and therefore avoided using most - are the words beginning with 'gi' and 'ge'. I have never been quite sure if the 'g' is soft or not.

The word 'gimcrack', for instance - should it be pronounced 'jimcrack' or 'gimcrack'? 'Gewgaw' looked a lovely word. It always has. I only wish I could have used it.

If I had come across the German word 'Gestapo' in a book first, I might well have gone around pronouncing the German wartime police as 'jestapo', which would not have done my school cred a lot of good.

Still, even to this day, I have awful moments of apprehension about using words such as 'gibberish' or 'gibbous' in case I really have been saying them wrong all these years, and you notice that I am not telling you which way I have been pronouncing them. And the reason that I am against capital punishment is not so much that I think it is wrong as that the absence of hanging absolves me from having to try to remember whether the thing on which it is done is a 'gibbet' or a 'jibbet'.

I used to think that at least I was safe with words beginning with 'gy', because they were all hard 'g's like the 'g' in gynaecology. But then I looked up 'gyre' and, blow me down, it's pronounced 'jyre'.

Does this mean that in 'Jabberwocky' the slithy toves actually jyred and jimbled, not gyred and gimbled, as I thought?

If I'd known what a life of insecurity lay ahead of me, I'm not sure I would have done all that reading to my mother as she ironed.

Incidentally, am I the only person to think it peculiar that we pronounce the word 'iron' as 'iorn' . . . ?

(There will be another meeting of Mispronouncers Anonymous very soon.)

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