Solder, hyperbole, segue, and other words to mispronounce

Published 6:23 pm Friday, June 3, 2022

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During a family dinner not too long ago, the topic of Worcestershire sauce somehow came up. Maybe we were talking about recipes or something similar – I don’t remember the details now – but the main thing that sticks out from the conversation is that, apparently, I just couldn’t get the pronunciation of Worcestershire right.

We had some disagreement over how all those syllables are supposed to sound together. For the record, I checked pronunciation guides on the Internet which generally agree that it’s something like “Wooster” and the “shire” part is maybe optional. The sauce is named after the place in the UK where it originated, but don’t ask me to explain why the British pronounce it that way. I don’t understand it myself.

Mispronunciations aren’t all that uncommon in the English language, especially when spelling is sometimes completely different compared to how we say those words out loud. (For example, I always say “wed-nes-day” in my head when typing out “Wednesday” so I remember the correct spelling, even if that’s not how it’s pronounced.)

A recent article from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary website compiled a list of words that are commonly mispronounced, and I thought it was interesting enough to share a few highlights this week:

Colonel (pronounced KER-nul): It’s weird that we stick an “r” sound into this military rank when it’s spelled with an “l”, right? The history of the word shows that it originates in Italian (from a word meaning “column”), but the French borrowed it too and changed the spelling to “coronel.” It came to English after that, and changed over several decades back to the “colonel” spelling. For some reason, however, English speakers decided to keep the “r” sound and confuse many generations to come.

Solder (pronounced SAH-der): The word itself is used when you’re joining metallic surfaces by melting some sort of alloy. I’ve seen a soldering iron used before, so I did actually know how to say this one correctly, but the silent “l” can be confusing to anyone unfamiliar with it. Apparently, the word’s Latin root is “solidare” (“to make solid”), so English speakers in the 1500s decided to add the extra letter in.

I think it’s always confusing when English words add in extra letters just for decoration! (Other words with a silent “l” include salmon, calm, walk, should, and calf.)

Boatswain (pronounced BOH-sun): A boatswain is an officer who takes care of all the ship’s equipment. The article doesn’t provide any explanation for the odd pronunciation of the word, but does point out that an acceptable alternate spelling is “bosun.” Everyone, please raise your hand if you’d prefer to spell the word like it sounds!

Antennae (pronounced an-TEN-ee): This is the plural form of “antenna” but specifically when you’re referencing the little things on the top of an insect’s head. To remember the pronunciation, just remember that the “ae” is pronounced like the “ae” in Caesar. Just to make things more confusing, if you’re talking about more than one antenna on a building or a car, then that word is simply “antennas.”

How does anyone learn the absurdly detailed nuances of English? I kept wondering this the more I kept reading this article.

Mischievous (pronounced MISS-chuh-vuss): Some people tend to add an extra syllable to this word to make it rhyme with “devious” but that’s not technically how the word is supposed to be spelled or pronounced. But I think if you choose to use the non-standard pronunciation, you’re being a bit mischievous yourself!

Hyperbole (pronounced hye-PER-buh-lee): At first glance, you might think the word would rhyme with “super bowl” but again, the English language is weird. In this word (which means extravagant exaggeration), the second syllable of “hyper” gets the emphasis, and you break “bole” into two syllables. According to the dictionary, the English word comes from Latin, but then the Latin comes from a Greek word, which is why the “bole” part of the word sounds like that.

It wouldn’t be hyperbole to say that tracing the history of some English words might be more confusing than researching someone’s complicated family tree.

Segue (pronounced SEG-way): Unlike other words ending in “gue” like vague, league, and fatigue, this word is not pronounced how it looks. You might be thinking now “I thought this word was actually spelled Segway,” but that’s actually just specifically a name for the two-wheeled vehicle you can ride around on. I’m assuming the company which makes Segways chose this similar-sounding name on purpose. After all, a “segue” is a transition from one thing to another, much like how a Segway can transition you from one location to another.

Now if only I had a good segue to get to the end of this column…

Oh well! As you can see, there are plenty of words out there that can leave us scratching our heads in confusion when we try to say them out loud. Mispronunciations happen to everyone, no matter whether English is our first or second language. But as long as we can figure out what word you mean to say, the “wrong” pronunciation is no big deal.

Holly Taylor is a Staff Writer for Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact her at or 252-332-7206.