No one would accuse the English language of being simple. After all, there are words spelled completely different than they actually sound, multiple words that sound the same but mean completely different things, and complex rules that could make anyone who isn’t a native speaker want to hurl their English dictionary across the room.
But there are also everyday words even native speakers use all the time that are constantly getting mangled when we utter them. (That’s right, everyday words—we’re not talking about eight-syllable gobbledygook here.) After scouring our thesaurus, we’ve determined that the 15 common words that follow are the hardest in the language. So read on, and cross-check your pronunciation against the dictionary! And for more ways we screw up our own language, check out these 30 Common Words You’re Using All Wrong.
\ ˈas-tə-ˌrisk \
This one is tough to remember what it is, let alone how to pronounce it. The character * seems so simple, but the word for it is surprisingly complicated, often leading speakers to want to pronounce it “asterix,” like the comic book character when they should actually be thinking more in terms of “risk.” And for more literary teachings straight from the television, check out these 20 Everyday Words and Phrases That Were Invented Onscreen.
\ (ˌ)dē-ˈfi-brə-ˌlā-tər \
Your tongue might feel like it needs an electronic shock after attempting this one. But just as a defibrillator doesn’t feel good but does good, while pronouncing this might not be fun, it’s a great word to break out on occasion. And for more on words that are nearly impossible to spell, check out these 25 Most Commonly Misspelled Words in America.
Pronouncing this word correctly became such a nuisance, bartenders around the country just gave up and started spelling it “draft” (which makes us ask: why don’t we do that with more words?). But the result is that when we see this spelled in the proper English way, it’s even less likely we’ll have a clue how to say it. For more on men’s favorite verbage, check out these 20 Words Men Use That Always Make Women Cringe.
This is another word that can be tough to pronounce correctly because of the extra letters that don’t need to be there. Just cut the “or” out altogether and it suddenly looks much more like it’s supposed to sound. For more on finding the right word for every moment, check out these 30 Hilarious Words for Everyday Problems.
\ ˌre-stə-rə-ˈtər \
This word has an interesting problem: we unconsciously add letters into it that aren’t there. There is no “n” in restaurateur. We are tempted to say “restaurant-eur” when referring to a proprietor of a restaurant, but we would be wrong. While the over 40 crowd may be familiar with this word, these are 40 Words People Over 40 Wouldn’t Understand.
This one is short and messy with the letters all kind of lumping together into one ugly-sounding syllable. It also happens to be part of what the Guinness Book of World Records has dubbed the toughest tongue twister in the world: “The sixth sick sheik’s sixth sheep’s sick.”
\ ˈi-sməs \
Doing some of the same snake-sounding syllable crunching as “sixth,” this word, referring to a narrow strip of land connecting two larger land masses, will make you sound like you have a serious lisp when you’re saying it right.
\ ˈkər-nᵊl \
What’s that “l” doing in there? And where does the “r” sound come from? All great questions and has to do with the word’s French and Italian translations that we’re not going to get into here. Suffice it to say, you want to pronounce it like the popcorn “kernel.”
\ ˌä-nə-ˌmä-tə-ˈpē-ə , -ˌma- \
This is not a word we use in conversation too often, which makes it all the more important to get it right when you do. Meaning “the naming of a thing or action by a vocal imitation of the sound associated with it (such as buzz, hiss),” according to Merriam-Webster, this one should roll of the tongue rapidly with a soft “t” and “p.”
\ sə-ˈnek-də-(ˌ)kē \
Another hard-to-say word that refers to a hard-to-explain figure of speech, this word refers to using a part of something to refer to a whole (e.g. “all hands on deck”). When it comes to parts of this word, pay extra attention to its final syllables, where you need to use a “k” sound, rather than a “ch” sound like the spelling might lead you to believe. We’re adding this one to our list of 30 Words That Will Make You Sound Smarter (But Not Pretentious).
\ ə-ˈna-thə-mə \
Meaning “one who is cursed” or referring to a ban, this word is one that might have you cursing when you try to pronounce it. To be fair, when you do finally figure out how it’s supposed to be spoken, it is actually kind of a pretty sound.
\ ˌig-nə-ˈmi-nē-əs \
A great word when you want to refer to someone as acting shameful, be careful not to disgrace yourself by mispronouncing it. But just knowing what it means is a good start—last year, when Jake Tapper used it on his CNN show, Merriam-Webster noted a 4,695% increase in lookups of the word.
This word has been mispronounced so often that many dictionaries accept either pronunciation. So while the above pronunciation is technically the correct one, you can probably get away with saying it \ˈfe-b(y)ə-ˌwer-ē\ adding a “y” into the middle of things where it doesn’t technically belong.
\ ə-ˈne-mə-nē \
\ ˈru̇r(-ə)l , ˈrər(-ə)l \
As fans of 30 Rock can attest, this word is comically weird to pronounce and when done correctly, sounds more like incomprehensible mumbling than an actual word. But that’s actually the way you say it, so go ahead and embrace it.
For more word trivia, check out these 40 Words That Will Instantly Reveal Your True Age.
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