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An opinion by Benjamin Dreyer




“Without looking it up,” an online chum asked readers the other day, “how do you define or describe ‘simpering’?” I find this sort of ephemeral social media challenge much more appealing than, say, “Name your fave Val Kilmer film that isn’t ‘Batman Forever.’”


Rolling up my metaphorical shirt sleeves, I considered for a moment and offered: “Affectedly tamped-down performative emotional communication, i.e., ‘I’m full of feeling and I’m not going to show it (but you can see how upset I am, right?).’”


And that’s how I learned, midway through my 60s and after three decades in the word business, that I had no idea what simpering is.


“Human beings have an unsettling ability to hang on to mistaken definitions and even mistaken pronunciations of their own language, remaining oblivious to information that might save them.”

“Simpering,” the dictionary informs us if we would but bother to open it, is an adjective meaning “marked by insipidity or by affected or ingratiating timidity.” I, apparently, was thinking more along the lines of how actresses have played wronged wives finally taking their excruciatingly noble leave of their philandering husbands. If there’s a single word for that, I can’t find it, but whatever it is, I now know, it ain’t “simpering.”


Human beings have an unsettling ability to hang on to mistaken definitions and even mistaken pronunciations of their own language, remaining oblivious to information that might save them.


One of the more benevolent memes — what might once have been called a maxim or an aphorism — floating about the internet is “Never make fun of someone who mispronounces a word. It means they learned it by reading it.” My quintessential example of that — I’m not alone in this, I know — is “epitome,” which I assumed as a young person was pronounced eh-pih-tome, and which I thought was an entirely different word than the one I’d occasionally hear that’s pronounced eh-pit-oh-mee. (Eventually, very eventually, I figured it out.)


More recently, a young person of my acquaintance mentioned the wonderful short story collection he was reading: Duh-bly-ners. It took me a long second to figure out that this was James Joyce’s “Dubliners,” and my young person, quick enough to catch my puzzlement, asked me if the pronunciation was correct — otherwise, I assure you, I would have kept my absolute silence.


Perhaps you’ve run across the term “mondegreen”? I’ve long known it to mean a misheard lyric or bit of poetry, but its full meaning I learned only minutes ago — because I finally deigned to investigate. “Mondegreen” was coined in 1954 by writer Sylvia Wright to commemorate her having misapprehended the phrase “laid him on the green,” in this line from a Scottish ballad: “They have slain the Earl of Moray / An’ laid him on the green.” Wright heard wrong, thinking there were two slaying victims, the earl and “Lady Mondegreen.”


In a confessional mood, I’ll contribute two of my own mondegreens, courtesy of Barbra Streisand: “Memories like the corners of my mind,” which is in fact not the first line of “The Way We Were” (it’s “light,” not “like,” which, yes, makes no sense), and, from the ballad “My Man,” “All my life is just a spare, but I don’t care.” I think I heard “a spare” instead of the correct “despair” because that concluding “t” in “just” abutting the commencing “d” in “despair” is both difficult to pronounce and difficult to hear. (Flip those two consonants around and you have a solid explanation as to how “iced tea” has, over the years, increasingly become “ice tea.”)


At least there’s a word like mondegreen to describe a misheard lyric that one clings to until eventual enlightenment. I wish there were one for the impulse, usually early on in life, to settle on an incorrect meaning for a word just by guessing from the context.


For years, because every picture of every house I ever saw described as stucco included them, I assumed that “stucco” referred to jauntily curved red roof tiles, not (as it does) to a variety of wall plaster. My husband, hailing from Southern California, where stucco houses are endemic, always has a good chuckle over that one. Now, when I hear the word, I think of the Marx Brothers’ “The Cocoanuts,” with Groucho as a crooked real estate auctioneer, saying, “You can have any kind of a home you want to. You can even get stucco — oh, how you can get stucco.”


And “grizzled,” in my mind, surely meant unkempt, because didn’t that describe every ancient prospector in his grubby overalls I ever saw described as grizzled? (“Grizzled,” you might already know, means “streaked with gray”; it would have referred to that ancient prospector’s scraggly beard, not to his lack of access to a laundromat.)


Ultimately, though, I can’t blame anyone, not even Streisand (I wouldn’t dare), for my being, on occasion, a bit of an intellectual slacker. These days, I simply remind myself that when I run across a word whose meaning I think I know but might have conjured out of thin air: You can look it up.


Benjamin Dreyer, the former executive managing editor and copy chief at Random House, is the author of “Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style.”

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