Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

The most mispronounced word of 2022 was lagniappe. We never heard of it, either.

Gyro is No. 2 on a list of the 10 most-mispronounced words of 2022, compiled exclusively for The Inquirer by Peter Sokolowski, editor-at-large at Merriam-Webster.

Don't feel bad. No language provides as big a challenge to navigate as English, an expert says.
Don't feel bad. No language provides as big a challenge to navigate as English, an expert says.Read moreCynthia Greer

You’ve checked the menu, and the gyro sounds good. The server asks for your order, and you confidently make your request for the Greek dish of roasted meat served in a pita.

“People pronounce it wrong,” Maria Kravvaritis, co-owner of Zorba’s Tavern Greek restaurant in Fairmount, said, “absolutely 110% of the time.”

It’s YEE-ro, by the way — with a rolled “r” if you can manage it — not JI-ro. “It doesn’t hurt the ear anymore to hear people say it wrong after all this time,” Kravvaritis said. “But it’s funny: When we bring the food to the table and ask who ordered the YEE-ro, no one raises their hand. It’s just so foreign to them.”

Gyro is No. 2 on a list of the 10 most mispronounced words of 2022, compiled exclusively for The Inquirer by Peter Sokolowski, editor-at-large at Merriam-Webster, the 191-year-old dictionary and reference book company in Springfield, Mass. Sokolowski also is a host of Merriam-Webster’s Word Matters podcast.

The words aren’t picked on a whim by smart people reading the dictionary: More than 1 billion words a year are looked up for proper definition and/or pronunciation at the Merriam-Webster website and apps, Sokolowski said.

“We don’t know why people have searched on a particular word for pronunciation,” he added. More than likely, they experience what Sokolowski termed “phonetic instability” about a word, and simply want to say it right.

Words such as gyro, known as loanwords with origins in another language, can be especially challenging, according to William Albertson, an instructor at Drexel University’s English Language Center.

While several of the entries on Sokolowski’s list may sound familiar, the No. 1 word, lagniappe (LAN-yap), probably doesn’t. It’s a small gift given to a customer by a merchant at the time of a purchase.

Often, travelers to New Orleans receive such small gifts in shops, said Sokolowski, explaining that the word has American French and Indigenous American roots.

He calls lagniappe a “rare duck of a word,” in that words that are most often looked up often enjoy a corresponding frequency in everyday usage. Lagniappe does not.

The No. 3 word on the list, epoch (EH-puhk), meaning an event or a time that begins a new period or development, is often mispronounced E-pock, which brings Sokolowski to an important revelation about the English language you might have sussed out yourself: “Our spellings and phonetics do not correspond.”

Indeed, according to the Merriam-Webster website, English requires people “to accept that was rhymes with does (but not with toes); that toe rhymes with dough, (but not with cough); that bird rhymes with word but not with cord, and except and accept are two distinct words that can’t readily be distinguished in speech.”

In other languages, spelling and pronunciation correspond much more frequently than in English, Sokolowski said.

That’s why, Sokolowski said, “I’m not aware of a spelling bee in another language,” since none provides as big a challenge to navigate as English. This was Sokolowski’s first year on the committee of 10 people who select words for the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee, held in the spring.

When it comes to mispronunciation, think twice about correcting someone, warns Grant Barrett, linguist and vice president of the American Dialect Society. He’s cohost of A Way With Words, a public radio program heard nationwide.

“It’s one of the rudest things you can do,” Barrett said, “unless you’re a parent or a teacher trying to help a young person.”

We should also refrain from looking down on a person who says a word wrong, Sokolowski said: “I think they could be big readers who encounter lots of words they’ve simply never heard aloud. People have read the word misled, and understand what it means, but pronounced it missile-ed. Or they say hyper-boil for hyperbole.”

Unscrambled Words, an online resource for players of word-based games like Scrabble or Words With Friends, recently drew up a list of its own 10 words we’ve been saying wrong in 2022, based on reader queries.

As with the larger Merriam-Webster’s compilation, the word gyro shows up as the No. 2 most mispronounced offering.

It’s one of five food words that made the list, topped by what’s proved to be a nationwide toughie: açai.

The purple berry, grown in Central and South America, is used in juices, smoothie bowls, and other items, and is pronounced ah-sah-EE or ah-sye-EE.

Though it’s hard to say, we have to try, Albertson asserted: “An attempt to approximate the pronunciation from the language of origin shows respect to that culture.”

With açai, people do their best, according to Hannah Lebiedzinski manager of Boostin’ Bowls in Manayunk.

“They want to say it right, but a lot of times, they wind up just saying, ‘Ahhhhh,’ ” she said. “But we know what they mean.”