A Hard Lesson, Also Known as Onerous

Every day, I get an email from one of those dictionary services with a word of the day.  It seemed like a good idea to sign up for it.  After all, I’d be learning something new every day, right?  Well, sometimes right, sometimes wrong.

I’d say about a third of the time I look in my inbox and see a word I’ve never glimpsed before, even though I read so indiscriminately I’ve been known to peruse the ingredients of a cereal box when desperate.  But, what to do with a word I’ve never seen before?  I know the right answer to that.  I’m supposed to open the email and plunge in and absorb the new word, its pronunciation and definition, and go around using it during the course of the day until I know it thoroughly or people start to avoid me, whichever comes first.

Usually, I don’t do that.  So, I’m a slob, a lightweight, who considers she’s probably learned, then sometimes forgotten, all the words necessary to her limited world?  Yeah, something like that.  Why bother? I tell myself — and careen into some other website or another full of words I already know.

Another third of the time, I see a word that’s hauntingly familiar — like recondite, for example.  Recondite!  Now, there’s a word I learned decades ago, prepping for the GRE.  I knew it then, but somehow, it just didn’t stick.  So, I wade in and refresh my memory.  Recondite, of course, means the same thing as abstruse, which is a word I only use when I’ve had too much to drink or I’m around people who are irritating me.  Who knows when that occasion might present itself again?  Recondite, recondite, recondite; not as poetic as placenta, placenta, placenta, but it will do.

Finally, there’s the last category — words I already know.  Oh, give me a break, I think.  Why am I wasting my time with a dictionary site that serves up softballs the size of watermelons?  Don’t I have better things to do with my life?  No, probably not.

So, sometimes, I check out a word I’m convinced I already know.  Like, say, onerous.  And sometimes, it stops me dead in my tracks, the way onerous did.  Sure, I’d been right about the definition (always a relief), but evidently, I’d been mispronouncing it for eons.  Great, just great.  I’d pronounced it (loudly and confidently) with a long o; the dictionary pronunciation guide said it was a short o.  Damn (short a)!  God knows how many people I’ve humiliated myself in front of for years by consistently mispronouncing onerous.  It makes me think of my senior year in college, when I took to using the phrase “as it were,” even though I had no earthly idea what it meant.  I just liked the sound of it, the same way I liked the sound of onerous with a short o.

Just like the snobbish woman I used to work with who got a bit confused and brandished a paper saying, Viola!, instead of Voila! How many times did I make cracks about that behind her back?  I spent the rest of the year handing things over and announcing Viola! at the top of my lungs, like I was a conductor of an orchestra or something.

Now, because of the dictionary updates, I’d gotten my comeuppance.  I cannot tell you how onerous it’s been.

(Copyright 2009 by Ruth Pennebaker)

5 comments… add one
  • I’ve been saying it wrong, too.  And I say two wrongs make it right.

    How ’bout this one: flaccid is properly pronounced flack-sid.

  • ruthpennebaker Link

    That one I know — which is funny, since a soft s sound would make it sound limper, more flaccid.

  • What an onerous burden the three of us have with our mispronunciations!  At least you made me feel better by confessing that you, too, read the ingredients on cereal boxes, etc.  It’s good to know that I’m not the only one with such a compulsive reading habit.

    You’ll get a kick out of this.  Occasionally, by happenstance originally, I use a word that’s “too big” for my readers.  (One of them complained that my words were too big.  My response:  “Get a dictionary.”) 

    So now I sometimes write things like this:   “Controversy has erupted in the tiny town of Notasulga, Alabama. (Big Word Alert for the reader who complained that some of the words we use are ‘too big.’) It seems that sleepy Notasulga harbors an ailurophobe. She complained via the Internet to the U.S. Post Office that Sammy the Cat, who has shown up promptly every morning at the Notasulga post office for a decade, doesn’t pay federal taxes and therefore has no right to lounge about on federal premises. After all, no federal employee would ever lounge about benefiting from taxpayer dollars for no reason. Postmistress Carolyn Hood said the complaint was later embellished to include the statement that Sammy attacked the ailurophobe at night in the post office (good for Sammy!), and that the complainant was allergic to cats. One can only hope that Sammy had not undergone an onychectomy before his alleged late-night encounter with the angry Notasulgan.”

    It’s true, the pen is mightier than the sword.  😉

  • The OED says the o can be either long or short.  And the OED is never wrong.  So neither have you (or I) been all these years. 

    I was very amused by your context for recondite and abstruse.  There really are words that only come out as weapons.  It’s nice to have them in the arsenal though.

  • Leafstorm Link

    How do you pronounce “Notasulga, Alabama?”

Leave a Comment