Monday July 25, 2005

A Little Knowledge

In a recent post I wrote about the phenomenon of the reading pronunciation, in which you first learn a word in print and guess its pronunciation from its spelling, only to hear it spoken aloud much later and discover that you've been mispronouncing it in your head.  Last week's episode of This American Life, titled "A Little Bit of Knowledge", includes a funny segment by Alex Blumberg about a broader phenomenon that includes reading pronunciations: children getting a mistaken idea in their heads that survives into adulthood.

The segment, which run from about 4:15 to 17:42 in the Real Audio file linked above, includes the following examples of this phenomenon:

  • Blumberg's belief that all Nielsen families were actually all named Nielsen, with the idea that people with that name were somehow very average and could therefore be used as a stand-in for a real statistical sampling.  He believed this until he was 34.
  • A woman who believed, based on various road signs, that there was an English word xing, pronounced [zɪŋ] (actually, she says [zɪŋɡ]), that referred to crossings for school children, deer, etc.  She believed this until she was corrected by a co-worker some time in her 20s.  She argues that her word was actually better: you don't want kids walking slowly across the street—they should [zɪŋ].
  • Three people, including Blumberg's father, who thought the word misled was pronounced [maizl̩d], and that it was the past tense of a verb misle meaning 'to deceive, to mislead'.
  • A guy who believed into his mid-20s that the word quesadilla was Spanish for "What's the deal?"
  • A woman who believed that unicorns were a real, but rare or extinct, animal.  She argues that unicorns are more plausible than dinosaurs—after are, aren't zebras more plausible than dragons?  She learns better at a keg party.
  • A woman whose family ate baked chicken every night of the week all through her childhood didn't understand why her friends in college were complaining about the food being served.  As far as she was concerned, the cafeteria food was varied and exciting.  When she tells them this, they reply, "What?", and she answers back, "What what?"
  • A woman who, as a girl growing up poor, received only a painted tissue box for Christmas one year.  When she was about to start crying, her sister, thinking quickly, told her that it was a really good gift because the box was painted by trained monkeys.  It became her prized possession, and she told everyone who asked that it was painted by monkeys, until eventually in college she reads a story written by her sister explaining everything.
  • (There's one more example, but it's sort of the punch line to the segment, so I won't spoil it.)

As Blumberg notes, many of these stories include a common element: the long pause in coversation, during which you realize you've just said something absurd.  I think that's a really interesting point in time—the point at which you rethink, for the first time in many years, something that's been part of your mental landscape for a long time, and you realize it makes no sense.  These mistaken beliefs aren't active beliefs, but are more like fossilized theories from an earlier state of understanding.  It's not that you continuously, consciously accept one of these ideas, but rather that that once you admit it through your childish skeptical filter, it becomes part of the background of your system of comprehending the world.  It's only when you say the idea out loud and the people around you give you the "are you crazy?" eyebrow that you reexamine the idea again using your current adult perspective, and realize, "That's clearly wrong—what was I thinking?"

[Update: some comments on the same subject by new-to-me linguistiblogger Bridget Samuels at her blog, ilani ilani.]

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Tracked on Jul 27, 2005 5:38:44 AM


I love reading about this kind of mistakes, so thanks for the link and list. Must have missed your previous post on the issue.

As a German native speaker, I constantly mispronounce English words in my head. For the longest time I thought the word 'painstakingly' had something to do with pain and stakes (until I saw it split up into 'pains-' and 'takingly' in a book recently) - I knew what it meant, I just never saw the word 'take' in it. And I once read out the term 'op-ed' as o-peed, because I thought it was a verbing of OP, in the past tense. Or something. That one still haunts me.

Posted by: Andrea at Jul 26, 2005 5:07:01 AM


Your confusion about the word 'painstakingly' is no reflection on you, as it is certainly one of the most unusual and ugly words in the English language.

As a native to English, my own personal shame is the word 'subtable' which for years and years (and still sometimes to this day) I read as 'suitable'. This made perfect sense to me when I was a teen: 'Refer to Suitable 1B' seemed correct to me, as I was selecting something 'suitable'. It was revealed with much mocking while I was in college how wrong I was.

Posted by: Pious Agnostic at Jul 27, 2005 4:29:56 AM

I somehow got into my head that emperor penguins were really like the emperor of a penguin colony or something. And they particularly had a responsibility to meet together and go on the journey carrying their eggs on their feet cause they were the emperors. Anyway, it wasn't until I was 15 or 16 while watching a documentary on emperor penguins that I found the idea a bit strange as they did not mention anything about the emperors leaving their colonies or anything and as I thought about it I never heard of penguin colonies and found out that by "emperor penguins" they meant a species. I never would have guessed otherwise. It was just the immediate idea that popped into my head and it still doesn't seem that strange to me.

Posted by: borker at Nov 27, 2008 10:58:50 AM