A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to review the tape of a podcast before it aired, and I heard myself describe a word’s “fun, mischievous connotations.” That would be the standard spelling. Given the way I said it, the second word would have been spelled mischievious.
I thought, “I think I have added a syllable to that word.” There was no question in my mind that this is one of my pronunciations of the word, with the stress on the second of four syllables. I can also pronounce the word with three syllables and the stress on the first syllable (and a schwa in the second syllable). What I needed to check was how much of an outlier I was.
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language online has only one pronunciation of mischievous listed: mĭs’chə-vəs. Collins English Dictionary online agrees on including only one. But I’m not alone. Merriam-Webster Online includes the pronunciation I used on the tape and labels it “nonstandard.” The editors note evidence for the spelling mischievious as far back as the 16th century but conclude that the spelling and pronunciation are nonstandard. Merriam-Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, first published in 1961, includes the four-syllable pronunciation with the label “chiefly in substandard speech.” Well, that just makes you feel good about your pronunciation.
It’s not hard to see the analogies that could lead to some of us developing an alternate pronunciation of mischievous: envious, devious, lascivious, impervious, and the like. (I’m restricting myself to examples where the root also ends in /v/.)
I have been informally polling friends since and have discovered that I am far from alone in having both pronunciations. After swim practice one day, I asked several friends what the adjective form of mischief is; they simultaneously said, “mischievious.” Over dinner, a few of us with both pronunciations tried to dissect possible differences in connotations of the two forms. Perhaps mischievous with three syllables is more playful, while mischievious with four syllables is more sinister? More devious, so to speak? A couple of my colleagues believe the three-syllable pronunciation may even be a bit hoity-toity or old-fashioned at this point.
But back before I had polled friends, back when I had just listened to the podcast, I was left with the question of whether to ask for a correction. It would be easy enough to delete the adjective entirely, leaving just the phrase “fun connotations.” I was concerned that listeners would get distracted by the “nonstandard” pronunciation and jump online to write me emails about it (corrective or perhaps cranky), rather than focusing on the point of the podcast, which had nothing to do with the pronunciation of the word mischievous. At the same time, I didn’t like the idea of “correcting” my speech just because it was recorded; after all, the only way that nonstandard pronunciations come to be accepted as standard is that they are used in more formal contexts, like this podcast.
I realize the way I have set up the choice in that paragraph, it sounds like I am going to leave the nonstandard pronunciation in the podcast. I did not. We edited the word out. But clearly I don’t feel completely comfortable with that decision, which is why I am blogging about it here.
I don’t plan to monitor my pronunciation of this word especially carefully in my day-to-day speech, but I realize that I may think twice if I am speaking on tape—even though I’m not convinced that the four-syllable pronunciation is nonstandard at this point. It is a reminder of how powerful these labels are, even for those of us who spend our professional lives challenging how the decisions about standardness in language get made.