Recently another retired college professor who hails from Great Britain and I were discussing the English language. One thing led to another, and I ventured to ask him and several others who were listening in to tell me what the most mispronounced word in the English language is. They all ventured a guess, and they all were indeed candidates. But none mentioned my favorite word, which I have been trying to hammer home for years. Since I have no well-established or well-known platform from which to listen, I am working on this project one person at a time, in most cases. I am not like E. F. Hutton, to whom everyone listens when he speaks, and I am a lone advocate for the word, crying in the wilderness. Of course most millennials would not remember this ad, although it disappeared from our lexicon only a few years ago.
I proffered the word ‘dissect’ and the professor immediately stated that the word was pronounced ‘disect’ as there was only one ‘s.’ I replied that there were two ‘s’s, so the following vowel, an ‘e,’ would require the short sound, since the ‘i’ immediately preceded the first ‘s.’ After a spirited debate, I showed him on my phone that the word was pronounced ‘dis-sect.’ He stated that I was looking in an American dictionary, and the British had the leg up on the English language. Not to be outdone, I Googled the English Oxford dictionary. Again, that dictionary stressed that the word is dis-sect, since the prefix ‘di-‘ means two, and when something is dissected, it is cut into more than two parts, and the example given was that the crowd dissected the prime minister’s position on a given subject. Bi- is also a prefix meaning two, so if we only cut something into two parts, we have a perfectly good word, bisect, to describe the activity. I won this one, as the worthy professor admitted his error and that of most others with whom he associated! I still haven’t heard any one say:
di-ssatisfied; a-ssembled; di-ssembled; di-ssertation; di-ssention, etc.
You get the point!
There are many words in the English language where a simple vowel change may change the entire significance or meaning of a word. A set of words that came to mind recently where a simple vowel change attaches an entirely different meaning to the words. One of the words is admittedly one that is commonly heard in the Southern United States, where words easily understood by the locals in the area are not used in other parts of the country.
The word ‘squash’ can indicate a vegetable, usually yellow, or may imply an action of smashing or beating a material into a soft mass or pulp. It can also mean to quash, or suppress some fact, belief or activity. What happens if we change the ‘a’ to an ‘I?’ The word ‘squish’ indicates a sound, such as walking while wearing wet shoes, when a squishy sound is heard.
A word I heard recently, definitely of the colloquial variety, is that of ‘sqush,’ pronounced as ‘skwush’ or something like that. I had heard the word used previously, (of course it wasn’t in the future!) but not often or recently. It was used to indicate the act of packing clothing tightly into a bulging valise or suitcase.
So, a small change in a simple and insignificant vowel where all the other letters are the same can imply an entirely different meaning. This brings to my mind another example of the change of a simple letter can cause a different pronunciation, even though the letter that is changed is not a vowel. This word is ‘dissect.’ A person will almost always pronounce the word ‘dissent’ properly as dis-sent, but if the n is changed to a c, the speaker will unabashedly pronounce the word ‘dissect’ as di-sect. Why of why do so many people do this to me, making me cringe?
A random but related thought comes to mind regarding pronunciation and meaning, include some homophones (same sound) that have different and even opposite meanings. One example of this is in two words that are essentially pronounced at least similarly, depending upon local dialect, and that is in the word ‘many’ and in the prefix “mini-” which are somewhat counter to each other, since one refers to a large number and the other to a small size. Another related thought occurs when using the word ‘previously.’ Many say “a previous marriage” but few say “a future marriage!” Ostensibly this occurs since most are unable to prognosticate what will happen. One could more accurately say, “During my previous marriage” or even during my second or third marriage.” But this might require too much thought for some, requiring the expending of great energy.