Monday, May 5, 2014

Blowing the Bubbles

Post by Jenny

I was poking around the other day when the term ‘bubble vocabulary’ caught my eye. My first thought was of the speech bubbles used by cartoon characters and superheroes. But in reading Seth Stevenson’s article, I learned that bubble vocabulary is “the words you almost know, sometimes use, but are secretly unsure of.”

Fun fact: I have more bubble words than Don Ho and Lawrence Welk combined. (If you don’t know who those guys are, feel free to phone a friend. And if you don’t know what that means, you’re way out of my league.) When I write, I try to heed Stephen King’s warning that any word plucked from a thesaurus is the wrong word. But when I talk, I secretly aspire to be one of those loquacious folks who confidently wields a show-stopping vocabulary.

This is not necessarily a good choice for me, a lifetime awkward speaker who stumbles over even garden variety words. Just the thought of trying to work something like chthonic into conversation throws me into panic. The moment before I open my mouth, I’ll start second-guessing myself. Is that ch really silent? Maybe it’s pronounced ch-thon-ic or ka-thon-ic, and I’m about to sound like an idiot. My internal use-it-or-not struggle continues until I have such brain freeze I couldn’t tell you my middle name if you asked.

Uncomfortable silence ensues.

After reading the article, though, I feel much better, because I’m not the only one who experiences these “bubble vocab fails.” Far from it. For many of us, the memories of these embarrassing fails linger for years. And years. (Every time I hear the word papyrus, I remember pronouncing it as pap-rus instead of puh-pie-rus. I was barely out of high school.) Even David Foster Wallace, who in his too-short life probably used every word that’s ever been conceived, admitted to once pronouncing fa├žade as ‘fakade.’

If you’re in the same boat, take heart. Stevenson points out that great words are fun to use, and we should use them, even if it means occasionally blowing it by misusing, or mispronouncing, them. Unlike breakdancing and deciphering menus in dark restaurants, vocabulary skills improve with age, so dust off your favorite challenging words and put them to good use.

Do you have any bubble words? Please share in a comment.

(To read the Slate article and take their bubble vocab quiz, click here.)


Patricia Stoltey said...

Your post made me think of a few of my words, Jenny. I still pronounce coupons as Q-pons (no matter how many people tell me it's coo-pons.

There were also those words I wouldn't use because I did know how to pronounce them. Segueway comes to mind.

Kerrie said...

I remember a time when my husband and I were trying to expand our dinner repertoire and we needed cognac for a recipe.

At the checkout stand at the grocery store, the women asked the usual question, "Did you find everything ok?"

I said, "No, we couldn't find the cognac (except I pronounced it cog knack)

She looked at me with that "Oh, bless your little heart" look and said, "I think you mean 'cone yak' and that is next store at the liquor store."

The good news is that I only made that mistake once. :-)

Lynn said...

Happened to me too many times to go into here :) Love the term "bubble words"! My new favorite friend who coaches me on pronunciation and meaning is my "Farlex Free Dictionary" phone ap. I push the little horn icon and the word is pronounced for me. Love it!

Shirley Drew said...

This is a great post, Jenny! Who knew there was a description for this phenomenon? I like the original article, too! Thanks!

Sarah Sullivan said...

Great post and good article! Just the other day instead of saying the wrong word, my brain apparently went off line for a moment and I wrote "Cease the Day!" instead of "Seize the Day" in a pretty important e-mail that was sent far and wide. just as I pressed send, my brain came back on line, but it was too late...Sad.

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