What You Think You Know Is Probably Wrong

What You Think You Know Is Probably Wrong

Language & Editing

We are pleased to repost this blog by former TEC editor Laura Cok. Laura is currently working as a communications specialist with Indigo Books and is a published poet. Her poem "Cosmic Egg Hypothesis" was the winner of the 2020 League of Canadian Poets Broadsheet Contest.

 

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Bookish types, such as we are, can run into problems with pronunciation. As a child, the language I was reading was more advanced than I usually heard spoken, and so I developed a few peculiar pronunciations for words that I had seen but never heard. This led to a particularly embarrassing moment in grade school when I pronounced “chaos” like “cha-hos.” 

 
Nina had a similar experience, believing that “melancholy” was “me-LAN-choly,” which she still thinks sounds better. Just imagine what you’d think if you saw the word “Chihuahua” before you’d ever heard it said out loud. It’s easy to become certain about something based solely on your own opinion.
 
A good editor isn’t someone who knows every detailed rule of spelling, grammar, and style off the top of his/her head (though we certainly like to think we do). A good editor is someone who knows when to look something up, because the odds are, what you think you know is probably wrong.
 
Although we all have our particular pet peeves towards errors we see everywhere—the other month we had an animated discussion over the fact that the frequently seen “alright” is technically incorrect and should always read “all right”—we are, alas, not immune. I learned in my copyediting class that the phrase “getting your just desserts,” which I always pictured as something along the lines of humble pie, is actually supposed to be “just deserts,” as the word comes from what you “deserve.” Somehow I had gotten two English degrees without ever realizing my mistake.
 
We recently got in a new edition of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, and it’s strikingly pristine next to our old battered copy. For a group of excellent spellers, we look things up constantly, just to be sure. This can get a little bit distracting, as I for one am easily delighted by the discovery of a new strange word. I think we ought to bring back “bobby-dazzler,” which is dated British slang for “an excellent person or thing.” “Mansuetude” is an archaic noun denoting meekness or gentleness. And a “thurifer carries a thurible” (an acolyte carries a censer). These words are unlikely to be relevant in our regular editorial duties, but one never knows when they might come in handy.
 
Recently, this dictionary-browsing taught me that I have always been wrong about the plural of “octopus.” It turns out that the standard is “octopuses,” although “octopodes” is also occasionally used (in what occasion, I can’t quite imagine). The common, though incorrect, “octopi” comes from confusion over the etymological roots—“octopi” is a formation according to the rules for Latin plurals, whereas “octopus” is a word that comes from the Greek. (Yes, this is the kind of thing that gets us excited around here.) “Octopi” might sound correct, but it turned out that what I thought I knew was completely wrong. I hope the octopodes aren’t too hurt.
 
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