Beware the Misles

I recently learned the story of a colleague’s secret shame. Revealing his name would bring humiliation down upon him. But journalism is cruel and blogging is worse. He is Professor D. Robert Ladd, a distinguished phonologist and phonetician at the University of Edinburgh, noted especially for work on prosodic phenomena like intonation and stress. Which relates (oh, the irony!) to his dark secret: For a number of years, when he read the word biopic, he privately assumed a totally wrong stress pattern for it: He saw it as having the stress pattern of myopic. Fail!

Bi-OP-ik, he was saying to himself in his head. But the word (a Variety magazine neologism from around 1947, according to Ben Zimmer of Language Log) is of course a combo of the first bit of biographical and the first bit of picture, and both parts get stress: BI-o-PIK.

Bob eventually realized his error, and it could have stayed safely confidential inside his brain, if only he hadn’t made the inexplicable mistake of telling a language blogger. I revealed all on Language Log immediately. (I could be a tabloid reporter, I really could. I’ve got the cruelty. I just don’t have the technical expertise in telephoto harassment and cellphone voice-mail hacking. But you can hire people from News International for that.)

Bob Ladd isn’t actually as alone as he no doubt feels. People have written to him to admit making the same mistake. One Language Log reader reported hearing bi-OP-ik from a quiz show host on British TV (no one seemed to notice).

Errors of this kind—private misanalyses of written forms that yield phonological errors if and when the word has to be spoken—need a technical name. They are not to be confused with other types of word error like folk etymologies, malapropisms, eggcorns, or mondegreens. I have learned, however, that people interested in English usage already have an established name for the words in question, which may suffice: They’re known as misles.

The term derives from the most widespread of all misles: the verb misled, which has misled many. It is formed from mis- (“in a wrong way”) and the preterite or past participle of the irregular verb lead (mislead, misleads, misleading, misled). But the spelling misled tempts a reader to think it might be the preterite or past participle form of an imagined regular verb misle, rhyming perhaps with sizal or perhaps isle: Don’t misle me, She misles me, She is misling me, I was misled.

There are more than a few misles in English. A comprehensive listing was attempted recently on the newsgroup alt.usage.english. I reproduce it below. On the right I add the most misleading hint on pronunciation I could think of. As a Chronicle reader and probably a Ph.D.—intelligence is a curse here—you might otherwise fail to see how a given word could qualify as a misle. Don’t be misled. And for heaven’s sake don’t show this list to anyone who is learning of English as a foreign language, because it will set them back by months. Even native speakers find it makes them a little queasy.

amphitheater (creature that eats amphiths)
apply (not lemony, more sort of … )
baketable (able to be baketed)
barfly (somewhat like barfle)
barroom (varoooom!)
bassethorns (larger than tenor thorns)
bedraggled (bed raggled)
bedrock (be-drock)
beribboned (berry boned)
biopic (try the macrobiopic diet)
boathouse (a boa’s a snake; what’s a thouse?)
bootheels (boo theels)
codenamed (what you are when someone co-denams you)
codeveloper (someone who velops code)
coworker (if you want your cows orked)
deicer (alternative spelling of dicer?)
fathead (fa-thead? fath-ead?)
goatherd (ther from Goa)
infrared (what you are when someone infrares you)
manslaughter (not like a woman’s laughter)
menswear (they sure do)
menus (roughly like a minus)
middecade (middie cade)
miniseries (plural of minisery)
misheard (mi-sheard)
misled (preterite of to misle)
molester (a kind of subterranean hamster)
moped (mo-ped)
mothers (they collect moths)
porthole (por-thole)
potash (po-tash)
pothole (po-thole)
redrawing (making things red raw)
riverbed (verbed and ri-verbed)
shelfreading (what’s freading?)
sidereal (side real)
sundried (preterite tense of to sundry?)
sundry (sundry topics, sundry tomatoes)
therapist (the what?)
titleist (tit leist?)
triphammer (the tri-phammer is 3 phammers in 1!)
tutus (and his brother Titus)
underfed (has not yet been derfed)
undermined (has not yet been dermined)
unionized acid (rather than ionize, it joined the union!)
unshed (I knew unshing was bad, but I unshed anyway)
warchest (warc-hest)
warplane (the lane for going at warp speed)
watershed (at the water’s hed)


As Tom Lehrer once sang of the elements (“These are the only ones of which the news has come to Harvard”), there may be many others but they haven’t been discovered. (Could lacerate have something to do with rating lace? Does dishevelled have anything to do with dishes?) So be afraid, be very afraid, when reading in public from unfamiliar material without preparation. As an insurance, learn at least a smattering of the International Phonetic Alphabet, and pick up a copy of John Wells’s superb Longman Pronunciation Dictionary. Then you’ll be safe.

Image credit: Flickr/ rubber bullets

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