10 words we've forgotten how to pronounce

Chances are you've been saying 'blackguard' wrong — to name but one example

Although English spelling is famously weird, there are at least some words that anyone learning English will easily get right — words like black, board, boat, clap, coat, cup, and hand. But put cup and board together and you get cupboard, which rhymes with Hubbard. Add kerchief to hand and you say it "hankerchif." Clearly English spelling is an evil trap devised to make the unaware look bad. "You said 'hand ker chief'? Oh. Ha ha. How terrible for you."

So we learn these exceptions, and we use them often enough that we remember them. But there are some words that we keep in the lexical cupboard and forget how they were supposed to be said. Then we recklessly go ahead and pronounce them as they're spelled...until someone starts to laugh.

Here are 10 words from the cupboard that will have you waving a white handkerchief.


A waistcoat is a kind of vest that goes under a tailcoat in evening attire. You could say (a bit inaccurately now) it's a coat that goes around your waist. But you ought not to say it's a "waist coat." No, you're supposed to say "weskit" or "wescut," and if you don't, you just failed your posh test no matter how spiff you look. This may not seem fair, but we tend to be economical with our pronunciation efforts when we can. If we treat the ai in waist like in again, and t like the t in soften, and the oa in coat like the o in women or the oi in going to when we say it "gonna," we've done to the word what we did to the garment — which used to be longer and have sleeves.


Sailors were generally not famed for their high levels of literacy. It was a lower-class, lower-paying job. So they didn't really keep the spelling of the words they said in mind. And when they said them often, the words would get worn down, as often happens in language. It's a bit of a bother to have to say "boat swain" every time you're talking about the ship's officer in charge of equipment. So even before the time of Shakespeare, this word had gotten trimmed to "bosun" — and sometimes written that way. But it was very important for some language pedants at that time, and for a couple of centuries after, to show the origins of words in their spelling. So this one was preserved as boatswain. And now that most of us have nothing to do with boatswains, we might say it as written because we don't know otherwise.


I'd rather drink from a funwale than be slung over a gunwale…no, wait, drink from a funnel than be slung over a gunnel…no, but… Well, never mind that. A gunwale, pronounced "gunnel" since at least the 1500s, is the wooden edge on the top of the side of a boat. It has nothing to do with whales, but everything to do with wales — not as in Prince of Wales but as in the wale of a fabric or the wale (also spelled weal) raised on your flesh after you're struck with a rod (perhaps for slinging someone over the gunwale). It's originally a word for a ridge. But if you say "gun wale," you might be the next one overboard.


Some people who know that this is said like "fokes'll" really want you to know they know, and so they spell it fo'c'sle. The worn-down pronunciation turns the upper forward deck of an old ship into something more like a foxhole, but folks'll say what fo'c'sle say, especially if they're sailors, and when you're dealing with the speech of sailors, any spelling-based forecast'll probably be wrong because the focus'll shift in the pronunciation. Still, the spelling fo'c'sle has only been around since the mid-1800s, and fore-castle with a hyphen is often seen in texts from before that, which suggests the sea-eroded pronunciation of this word is newer than of gunwale and boatswain.


Have you ever heard someone call someone a "blaggard"? It's actually the same word you see written as blackguard. It originally referred to household menials or, perhaps, hired thugs — people who wore black and were not really on the level of real guards. By the 1700s blackguard had come to be used for any crook or lowlife. And just as the sense lost its particular distinctions, the pronunciation wore down too: the "kg" easily became just "g," and the second syllable lost its stress. This seems to have happened first in Irish English, which was showing spellings like blaggard and blagaird by the 1800s.


"Clapboard is pronounced as it's spelled!" you might say. And, true, for many people it is. But this word, for a kind of wooden siding, was already being spelled sometimes as clabord in the 1600s, though it had first appeared in English just the previous century. Well, why not? Cupboard was already being said as "cubbard" by the 1500s. Wondering who the blackguards are who sanded down the clapboards and cupboards? They may well have been blackguards — domestic menials, not highly literate, who turned "pb" into "b" as easily as they turned "kg" in to "g," and the rest fell off from there. (Why isn't blackboard like "blabbard"? For one thing, "k" and "b" aren't said in the same place in the mouth, like "k" and "g" or "p" and "b" are; for another, it's newer, and is best known to educated speakers.)


This word, which is a general term for food supplies, did not get digested by English. No! Actually, we borrowed it from the Old French vitaile, so it easily came to be said in English as "vittle." Yes, this is the same word you see spelled vittle, usually in the plural, sometimes preceded by the word tender. So where did the misleading spelling come from? Latin. Vitaile is a digested form of Latin victualia, and in the 1500s, when the English started learning more about the Latin and Greek classics, people started spelling this word as victual (and similar versions) — not with the intention of changing the pronunciation, but just to show off the noble origins of the word. Snobs.


If, like me, you're a colonial lout, you may not have known that the "proper" way to say this is like "goozbry," with the "oo" as in "book." Funny. I'm sure you don't say raspberry like "rasp berry." If we can say "razzberry," why not at least "goozberry" — if not the very British version with only two syllables? Probably because we don't eat them nearly as much as raspberries. And no one blows gooseberries like they blow raspberries at objects of scorn...such as English spelling.


Some of you may see this one and do a facepalm or headdesk. "We say it 'fore-head'!" Many of us certainly do...here and now. But perhaps you may have seen this little rhyme:

There was a little girl,

And she had a little curl

Right in the middle of her forehead.

When she was good

She was very, very good,

And when she was bad she was horrid.

Yes. It rhymes forehead with horrid. This is not a poem by some British blackguard, either. It's by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, one of the great American poets of the 1800s. The "forrid" version is in fact still the first pronunciation given in the Oxford English Dictionary, and in Merriam-Webster and Collins too. (Not in the American Heritage Dictionary, though!) Centuries ago there was a fight between the h and the r, and the r won (though it later lost to the c in forecastle). But many of us now don't know there ever was such a fight, and we just say it the way it looks.


This word — the name of a city in England and another one in Massachusetts, and part of the name of Worcestershire sauce — plays a double trick. Many of us know that it's pronounced "Wister" (or, in Massachusetts, "Wista"). But many of those who don't know that — and actually many of those who do, too — see a letter in the word that's not there. I can't even tell you how many times I've heard people say this word is spelled like "Worchester." But look up: there's no h. It's a mean trick, because the cester in this word comes from exactly the same Old English word (meaning "town" or "camp") that gives us the chester in Winchester and Dorchester (two more Boston-area places). Another British place name like this is Cirencester, which used to be pronounced as — can you guess? — "Sissiter."


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