Have You Been Misled by ‘Misles’? The Linguistics Behind These Commonly Mispronounced Words

They're misleading.
They're misleading. / Youst/DigitalVision Vectors

In November 1991, Eric Wolfe posted in the Usenet group rec.arts.books regarding the word misled, which had appeared in the previous message. Wolfe knew now that it was the past-tense form of the verb mislead, pronounced “miss-LED.” But for a good 15 or 20 years, he’d misread it as “MY-zuld,” as though it were the past-tense form of misle.

He ended his confession with a question: “Has anyone had similar experiences?”

Oh, had they. One case involved confusion over why one clothing item wasn’t called a “cloe”; another centered on the late-stage realization that policy wasn’t “police-y.” One user copped to having “labored under the belief that mystery novels were classified as to quality … by the ‘whod’ unit.” Some people cited pop culture references to the confusion over misled: It had come up in Anne Tyler’s 1985 novel The Accidental Tourist and the BBC’s 1975 television adaptation of Richard Llewellyn’s novel How Green Was My Valley.

The conversation soon moved to a more germane Usenet group, alt.usage.english, where misled and other misled-like pronunciation mistakes became a recurring topic. In June 1997, Donna Richoux suggested calling them “misles.” She thought the term was “befittingly difficult to figure out how to pronounce,” considering that various users had reported mispronouncing misled as “MY-zuld,” “mizzled” (like grizzled), and even “miled” (in the vein of isle). Technically, misle was already a word: It’s a nonstandard spelling of the verb mizzle, meaning either “to drizzle” or “to confuse, muddle, mystify,” per the Oxford English Dictionary. But Richoux’s nominalized version was new territory, and it stuck. 

Doing the Splits

What exactly qualifies as a misle, meanwhile, is still up for debate. “As with many linguistic terms (notably, ‘word’), it isn’t actually that easy to come up with a watertight definition,” Beatrice Santorini, a senior fellow in the University of Pennsylvania’s department of linguistics, tells Mental Floss.

five white goats staring
Who will erd these goaths? / Grant Faint/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Many oft-cited misles do have this in common, though: The mispronunciation occurs because the speaker incorrectly splits up the parts of the word. For instance, you assume awry is a combination of aw- (like awful and awesome) and -ry (like scary and furry)—so you misread it as “AWE-ree.” But it’s actually “a+wry,” hence the accurate pronunciation “uh-RYE.” Biopic is a similar case: It looks like the prefix bi- and the suffix -opic, so you think “bye-AH-pic,” like myopic. But biopic doesn’t comprise those two parts: It’s “bio+pic,” abbreviated from biographical picture—so, “BYE-oh-pick.”

Sometimes it’s less about morphemes than phonemes. You see the -th- in goatherd, for example, and your mind jumps to “GOATH-erd” before you can process that it’s goat and herd. Or you pronounce deicer as “DICE-er” instead of “de-ICE-er” because the -ei- calls to mind words like height and feisty

But the reason for the misunderstanding isn’t always quite so clear. Take misled, the word that started it all. It could be tricky in part because we’re used to de-emphasizing -led in past-tense verbs like hassled, titled, and puzzled. Santorini has another theory. “I think the thing that really favors the misanalysis is that the prefix mis is so relatively long compared to the stem led,” she says.

The Misle-verse of Madness

All this is not to say that a mispronunciation must involve faulty part-splitting in order to be a true misle; again, misle an unofficial classification with no formal definition. You could argue that a misle is any word whose spelling leaves room for confusion. In that case, words like boatswain (pronounced “BO-sun”) and colonel (“KER-nul,” like kernel), which simply look a lot different than they sound, would qualify. You could also toss in foreign-language loanwords like rendezvous, which many a young reader has interpreted as “REN-dez-voos.” 

collection of apples
Very apply. / Steve Terrill/Corbis Documentary/Getty Images

The term misles has even been used as a direct synonym for book words—words commonly mispronounced because people typically encounter them on the page before ever hearing them. “To my mind, the two terms are fairly orthogonal,” Santorini says. “For me, book words are words that are not part of the vernacular, whether misanalyzed or not. Misles, by definition, are misanalyzed, but not necessarily terribly bookish. It’s probably true, though, that book words have a greater chance of being misanalyzed.”

Plenty of misles are indeed part of our everyday lexicon: Mother has been mistaken for “MOTH-er” (evidently someone who works with moths in some unspecified way), and apply for “apple-y.” Santorini recently had a misle experience with a familiar word in her first language, German: “The other day, I misparsed the German ‘be-inhalt-en’ (to contain) as ‘bein-halten,’ (to leg-hold, a possible though non-existing verb), but the intended verb isn’t terribly uncommon.”

And if even linguists can be misled by misles, there’s no shame in letting one get the better of you. In fact, it can be pretty funny. Take a look at 10 of our favorite misles below, many of them pulled from a list that Richoux compiled in alt.usage.english in 2002.

1. Barfly

illustration of two men in a bar in the 1800s
Two barflies. / clu/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images

A barfly—comprising bar and fly—is someone who spends a lot of time in bars. But the term has been misread as “BARF-lee” (as in “barf+ly”), which could easily be a slangy synonym for disgusting.

2. Bedraggled

Bedraggled isn’t “bed+raggled.” It’s “be+draggled,” from a verb meaning “to wet (dress, skirts, or the like) so that they drag, or hang limp and clinging with moisture,” per the Oxford English Dictionary.

3. Codeveloper

Codeveloper is “co+developer,” but it’s been misread as “code+veloper”—one who “velops” code, which isn’t a thing.

4. Coworker

angry cow
No orking allowed. / John M Lund Photography Inc/DigitalVision/Getty Images

Similarly, coworker has been misread as “cow+orker”—one who “orks” cows.

5. Draught

Draught looks like it would rhyme with taught and caught, but it’s pronounced exactly like draft.

6. Epitome

Many early readers have learned the hard way that epitome is pronounced “eh-PIH-tuh-mee,” not “EP-ih-tohm.”

7. Infrared

thermal image of man and dog
'Infrared' doesn't rhyme with 'scared.' / Joseph Giacomin/Image Source/Getty Images

It’s “infra+red,” not “in+frared,” so you say “IN-fruh-red.”

8. Sidereal

Sidereal, meaning “starlike,” is pronounced “sigh-DEER-ee-ull,” like cereal and ethereal. It’s not “side+real.”

9. Underfed

Underfed—as in “under+fed”—has been mistaken for “un+derfed,” meaning “not derfed,” which isn’t a thing, either. (Though derf did once exist: It’s a medieval noun meaning “trouble” and an adjective meaning “bold” and “audacious,” among other things. It’s also a fake number created by Carly in the Nickelodeon TV series iCarly.)

10. Warplane

two f-15s in utah in 2005
Warplanes don't fly in the warp lane. / Stocktrek/DigitalVision/Getty Images

It’s a war plane, not a warp lane.

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*This article was updated to clarify that sidereal is pronounced “sigh-DEER-ee-ull,” with a long i, not “sid-EER-ee-ull” with a short one.