One of the best things about doing puzzles is that you get to learn new words.
Whether they’re obscure or antiquated, hip new slang, borrowings from foreign languages, or simply neat words you’ve never encountered before, these words can be a delight to encounter while solving. (Even if you’re baffled while solving and have to look them up afterward.)
But the problem with some of these words is that if you only see them in print, you might not know how to pronounce them. For instance, it took me quite a long time to connect the written word “quinoa” with the spoken word that sounded like “keen-wah.” I know I’m not alone on that one.
So, imagine, if you will, you’re on vacation in the United Kingdom, and you stumble upon this small town:
Welcome to Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, a town in Anglesey in the UK.
This 58-character place name is actually only 51 letters long, as certain character groups in Welsh are considered as one letter (LL, NG, and CH among them).
Would you be able to pronounce it? I don’t think I would!
But check out this TV weatherman, who doesn’t blink twice at tackling this mind-boggling word:
Now that’s a puzzler who won’t be daunted by some uncommon vocabulary.
Tricky clues can come in all shapes and sizes, from wordplay that sends you down the wrong path (like “Intel processor?” for SPY) to clues with some tongue-in-cheek humor (like “Car bomb?” for EDSEL). But perhaps the most diabolical are clues that rely on alternate pronunciations to deceive solvers.
These clues are especially crafty, because oftentimes, it’s only when spoken aloud that the alternate meaning reveals itself. There were two prime examples of this cluing style in the Indie 500 puzzles I’ll be reviewing later this week.
At first blush, the clue “Layers of rock?” seems to point toward STRATA or something similar, except the question mark indicates some sort of wordplay is afoot. But if you use lay-ers (as in “those who lay”) of rock, suddenly the answer is apparent: MASONS.
Similarly, the clue “Water tower?” seems straightforward until you consider the question mark. But pronounce tower tow-er (one that tows) and you’ve cracked it: TUG.
Friend of the blog and Penny Press crossword guru Eileen Saunders also contributed a terrific example, “Sewer junction?” for SEAM.
Of course, the perils of pronunciation are hardly restricted to the world of crossword cluing. One need only travel abroad and encounter some of the towns in England to discover some curious pronunciations awaiting them.
In the music video below, chap-hop artist Sir Reginald Pikedevant, Esq. offers a litany of examples of curious British pronunciations in his song “Shibboleth.”
In the video, he defines shibboleth as a word which distinguishes between group members and outsiders by the way it is pronounced. The word comes from the Hebrew Bible, where the word itself was used to distinguish between Ephraimites (who could not pronounce the word properly) and Gileadites (who could).
And while historical uses of shibboleths usually had unpleasant connotations, Sir Reginald’s video is simply a whimsical look at the weirdness of language:
And now, given the subject at hand, I have a challenge for you, my fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers!
Below I’ve posted a poem called “The Chaos,” designed to highlight the many irregularities in spelling and pronunciation in the English Language. Created by Dutch writer and teacher Gerard Nolst Trenite, it has appeared in various formats for nearly a century, and it’s a taxing read, to be sure.
I hereby challenge any member of the PuzzleNation readership to create a video of you reading the poem in its entirety! [Note: this is, in fact, a truncated version, but I feel it would be torturous to make you read all 274 lines of this version!]
So, if you accept the challenge, post your video on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, or wherever, and send me a link! The most impressive performance will earn a suitably puzzly prize!
Dearest creature in creation,
Study English pronunciation.
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse, and worse.
I will keep you, Suzy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy.
Tear in eye, your dress will tear.
So shall I! Oh hear my prayer.
Just compare heart, beard, and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word,
Sword and sward, retain and Britain.
(Mind the latter, how it’s written.)
Now I surely will not plague you
With such words as plaque and ague.
But be careful how you speak:
Say break and steak, but bleak and streak;
Cloven, oven, how and low,
Script, receipt, show, poem, and toe.
Hear me say, devoid of trickery,
Daughter, laughter, and Terpsichore,
Typhoid, measles, topsails, aisles,
Exiles, similes, and reviles;
Scholar, vicar, and cigar,
Solar, mica, war and far;
One, anemone, Balmoral,
Kitchen, lichen, laundry, laurel;
Gertrude, German, wind and mind,
Scene, Melpomene, mankind.
Billet does not rhyme with ballet,
Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet.
Blood and flood are not like food,
Nor is mould like should and would.
Viscous, viscount, load and broad,
Toward, to forward, to reward.
And your pronunciation’s OK
When you correctly say croquet,
Rounded, wounded, grieve and sieve,
Friend and fiend, alive and live.
Ivy, privy, famous; clamour
And enamour rhyme with hammer.
River, rival, tomb, bomb, comb,
Doll and roll and some and home.
Stranger does not rhyme with anger,
Neither does devour with clangour.
Souls but foul, haunt but aunt,
Font, front, wont, want, grand, and grant,
Shoes, goes, does. Now first say finger,
And then singer, ginger, linger,
Real, zeal, mauve, gauze, gouge and gauge,
Marriage, foliage, mirage, and age.
Query does not rhyme with very,
Nor does fury sound like bury.
Dost, lost, post and doth, cloth, loth.
Job, nob, bosom, transom, oath.
Though the differences seem little,
We say actual but victual.
Refer does not rhyme with deafer.
Foeffer does, and zephyr, heifer.
Mint, pint, senate and sedate;
Dull, bull, and George ate late.
Scenic, Arabic, Pacific,
Science, conscience, scientific.
Liberty, library, heave and heaven,
Rachel, ache, moustache, eleven.
We say hallowed, but allowed,
People, leopard, towed, but vowed.
Mark the differences, moreover,
Between mover, cover, clover;
Leeches, breeches, wise, precise,
Chalice, but police and lice;
Camel, constable, unstable,
Principle, disciple, label.
Petal, panel, and canal,
Wait, surprise, plait, promise, pal.
Worm and storm, chaise, chaos, chair,
Senator, spectator, mayor.
Tour, but our and succour, four.
Gas, alas, and Arkansas.
Sea, idea, Korea, area,
Psalm, Maria, but malaria.
Youth, south, southern, cleanse and clean.
Doctrine, turpentine, marine.
Compare alien with Italian,
Dandelion and battalion.
Sally with ally, yea, ye,
Eye, I, ay, aye, whey, and key.
Say aver, but ever, fever,
Neither, leisure, skein, deceiver.
Heron, granary, canary.
Crevice and device and aerie.
Face, but preface, not efface.
Phlegm, phlegmatic, ass, glass, bass.
Large, but target, gin, give, verging,
Ought, out, joust and scour, scourging.
Ear, but earn and wear and tear
Do not rhyme with here but ere.
Seven is right, but so is even,
Hyphen, roughen, nephew Stephen,
Monkey, donkey, Turk and jerk,
Ask, grasp, wasp, and cork and work.
Pronunciation — think of Psyche!
Is a paling stout and spikey?
Won’t it make you lose your wits,
Writing groats and saying grits?
It’s a dark abyss or tunnel:
Strewn with stones, stowed, solace, gunwale,
Islington and Isle of Wight,
Housewife, verdict and indict.
Finally, which rhymes with enough —
Though, through, plough, or dough, or cough?
Hiccough has the sound of cup.
My advice is to give up!
You can submit your videos to any of our social media platforms below! Good luck!