Adventures in Social Awkwardness: Ambidextrous Nuclear Malapropisms

Adventures in Social Awkwardness: Ambidextrous Nuclear Malapropisms

I hate when someone mispronounces a word. It has been one of my pet peeves since childhood. My grandmother recently told me that when I was about five, my great-aunt complained that I corrected her as she read a book aloud.

"I don't like that kid. She kept tellin' me I was readin' wrong!"

Based on my memories of my great-aunt and her thick Oklahoma accent, I'm sure this was not an isolated incident. One might also think that once I was old enough to know better, I would have stopped correcting adults on their pronunciation.


I choose to ignore most common mispronounced words for the sake of acquaintances' feelings (Cavalry... sherbet... Worcestershire... espresso...), but some I simply must correct. For example: nuclear. It is nu-KLEE-er, not nuke-EW-ler. Stop putting u's where they don't belong! You'd be surprised at the people who consistently get this wrong. One of my high school science teachers was one of those people.

My teacher mispronounced a lot of words, especially chemistry terms, which had me fit to be tied since she was, you know, teaching chemistry. The first mistake was Unnillenium, now known as Meitnerium. She left out the third syllable, but I decided it was an obscure word that I wouldn't have to hear often and ignored it. Throughout the semester I would raise an eyebrow at yet another word she said wrong and go back to taking notes. I recall writing pairs of rolling eyes in the margins of my notes every few lines.

(If you think that High School Me was a bit of a smart aleck, you don't know the half of it.)

When we started talking about atoms and protons and neutrons and "nuke-ew-lar" science, I couldn't ignore it. Over and over, she said it wrong. By the fifth or sixth time, I was about to throw something at her. I shifted uncomfortably in my seat and tried to focus on taking notes. I told myself it wasn't a big deal. Just a word.

She said it again.

"It's 'nu-KLEE-er!'" I interrupted loudly. And I panicked. I clamped my mouth shut and pretended to be furiously scribbling notes as my teacher whirled around to see who corrected her. I sat in front, so I had nowhere to hide. She surveyed the room with a gimlet eye.

"Who said that?"

Miracle of miracles, no one ratted me out. There was an uncomfortable silence for several seconds before she went back to her lecture. I noticed she didn't say "nuclear" again for the rest of the morning. I chalked that up as a victory for dictionaries everywhere.

Fast forward five years to my second semester of college in Mr. E's class. We were discussing handedness as a part of child development, and he asked us to indicate whether we were right-handed, left-handed, or... am-bid-dex-TREE-us. He added a syllable. And there it sat, like a burr under a saddle. He repeated the word several times. I stared at my notes, determined to have self-control this time and not--

"It's am-bi-dex-TRUSS!" I interrupted him. I clamped my mouth shut and stared at the floor. Mr. E looked straight at me because I was still that student in the front row.

"Did you just correct my pronunciation?"

"Yes, sir, I did."

(Some free advice: Honesty is the best policy when you've said something awkward and possibly rude. It throws people off balance so they get confused instead of mad. Just a helpful hint if you do this kind of thing regularly.)

"What did I get wrong?"

"It's ambidextrous. There's no I." Someone behind me snorted with laughter.

"There is an 'i' in ambidextrous."

"But not where you put it."

The whole class was giggling at our exchange by this point, and I could feel my face was bright red.

"I said ambidextrous, didn't I?"

"No. You said 'am-bi-dex-TREE-us.'"

"No, I didn't. Did I?"

"Yes," I said as a few other students nodded in reluctant agreement. "That's why I corrected it." I realized how rude that sounded and added a quick "sorry" at the end. The giggling continued, and Mr. E. rolled his eyes.

"Thanks a lot, Grammar Girl," he said and finished his lecture, thick with sarcasm, but without further interruption. I was lucky Mr. E had a good sense of humor.

However, for the rest of the semester, he would occasionally pause after saying a long or complicated word and look at me.

"Hold on, let me check the dictionary: Laura, was that right?"

All that to say if I ever mispronounce a word when my husband is within earshot you can be sure he takes great delight in teasing me about it for the next twelve years.

But can we all please stop saying "nuke-ew-lar?" Pretty please?

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