Confession: I Write for a Living, but I Don’t Actually Know How to Pronounce Any Words

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It was 2013. I was on a panel (I don’t remember where) talking about something (I don’t remember what). To articulate the point I intended to make, I wanted to use the word “zeitgeist.” It’s a word I’d used multiple times in print, as it’s a really neat and subtly pretentious way of saying “spirit” or even “culture.” It makes me feel all smarty-arty, like people might read it and think, “Damn, he said zeitgeist. I need to ask that nigga some QUESTIONS, because zeitgeist-wielding niggas got answers!”


But there was a problem. I had never actually said it aloud before. And I wasn’t sure if I’d actually heard it. So I wasn’t quite sure how it was pronounced. As I learned eventually, “zeitgeist” is pronounced “zite” (one syllable) “gīst” (one syllable). But that day on that panel, I said zit-tee-guest-tee. And I just did what I always do when pronouncing a word I’m not quite sure of: say it super fast and super low so that people either don’t understand my mumbles or attribute it to some Pittsburgh accent.

And just to inform you that this isn’t a thing that happened five years ago that I don’t do any more, the following exchange happened last November while I was in a room with The Root’s Danielle Belton, Terrell Starr, Anne Branigin, Maiysha Kai and Veronica Webb:

“Hey y’all. Is there an adjective form of toe-may?” I asked.

“Toe-may? What do you mean?”

“You know, the word to describe a really long and heavy piece of text.”

“You mean tome?”

“I’m gonna go get some lunch.”

These are just two examples, but I have dozens more of me publicly butchering words that I know very well and use while writing quite regularly. It actually might be happening more frequently now, since I’m doing more panels and talks. And on said panels and talks, I’ll think about a point I made in something I wrote and attempt to articulate that point. But then I’ll think, “Holy shit. I’ve never actually said that word or that sequence of words aloud before.” And then I’ll do the low-mumble thing and hope no one notices.

Now, in my defense, there’s a decent explanation of why this dynamic exists. I just don’t talk very much. I’ve gone entire days—sometimes three or four days in a row—without saying a word to anyone other than my wife and daughter. I’m still communicating with people regularly, but all of those communications are either through email, chat, Slack or text. (This is where people who know me are probably like, “Umm. You don’t communicate at all, nigga.” But baby steps!)

Anyway, with some of those words, I just never had the opportunity to say them aloud or hear someone say them. And when it’s my time to say it aloud, I just guess and hope I’m right or mumble and hope there are enough context clues there for them to know what I mean.

That doesn’t make it feel any less paradoxical, though. And it’s especially paradoxical right now, at this exact moment, because I’m just now realizing I’ve never said paradoxical aloud, either.

It’s pronounced “pa-ra-doe-x-cow,” right?

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB, a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, and the author of What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker (Ecco/HarperCollins)


KC Complains A Lot

My fiancee learned Spanish first, then went to school and had to basically unlearn Spanish and learn English. She took ESOL for years. You wouldn’t know it now, but it does pop up every now and again.

Like for the longest time, she would say stupidiness. Like “stoop-id-ee-ness”. “I can’t believe you, you’re bringing so much stupidiness!” right now. I think she was slamming the word “stupidness” and “stupidity” together.

The other word is “buffet”. She pronounces it “boof-fett” instead of “buff-ay”. So does her mom. (Side note; my mother in law learned English from watching Sanford and Son and What’s Happening. My mother in law is cool.)

The one thing I’ve realized is that English is a stupid, mashed up, garbage language, cobbled together from dozens of lingual sources, with a zillion conflicting rules about what sound goes where and why, and given that, there’s no reason to be ashamed when you miss pronounce something in English, because English is awful. It’s why I’m fully off the “I wish they’d learn English” train. English is full of stupidiness, no lie, y’all.