The first time you saw the word biopic, did you pronounce it ‘bi-OPic’, to rhyme with myopic, either aloud or in your head, before learning that it’s ‘bio-pic’, as in biographical picture? If so, you were well and truly mizzled. I mean MY-zelled. No, wait: misled.
There are words we know, or think we know, but: (1) we probably got to know them in print before hearing them spoken, and (2) their spelling is ambiguous or misleading in a way that leads us to ‘hear’ them differently – perhaps incorrectly – in our mind’s ear.
Eventually there’s a lightbulb moment. Oh, it’s a bio-pic, not a bi-opic! I’ve been mis-led, not mizzled! Some linguists and language enthusiasts call these troublesome words misles, back-formed from misled, which is perhaps the prototypical misle. Others call them book words.
Misles are a subset of mispronunciations. They’re not like expresso for espresso, where the variant pronunciation corresponds to a different spelling that’s produced or assumed. Misles are more like an early stage in rebracketing, where affixes and compounds create ambiguous morphology: coworker, deicer, mishit, redrawing, sundried, titleist, unshed. The confusion may be momentary or prolonged.
The chances of being mizzled are higher when the word is rare but can be reanalysed in a familiar way: sidereal as ‘side real’ instead of /saɪˈdɪrɪəl/ (four syllables, stress on ‘dee’); epitome as ‘EPI-tome’ instead of ‘eh-PIT-o-me’.
As a child, I said Penelope as /ˈpenəloːp/ ‘PEN-elope’ – usually silently, while reading, which is why it took months for the truth to dawn. It may even have been years, if that’s not hyper-bowl hyperbole.
Different pronunciations of a word form may be standard in different contexts:
Similarly, but less silly, there is the chemical process ionization, where a substance is separated into ions; reversed, it gets unionized, that is, un-ionized. This string can easily be parsed as union-ized.
Sometimes there’s fortuitous semantic overlap. Bedraggled suggests bed-raggled rather than the etymologically sounder be-draggled, with its be- suffix.
Adding to the intrigue is the verb mizzle. Could it have come from misled, past participle of mislead?
Mizzle as a verb has a few meanings, including ‘drizzle’, ‘complain’, and ‘leave suddenly or vanish’. In the sense ‘confuse, muddle, mystify’, it goes back several centuries, and its origin is uncertain. It shows variable spelling, appearing as misle, mizzel (both 16thC), mizel (17thC), and mizzle (19thC).
The OED’s first citation, from 1583, has more of an ‘intoxicated’ sense (‘mizzeled with wine’), while its second, from 1599 (‘Though he be mump, misled, blind…’), ‘could perhaps alternatively be interpreted as showing misled’.
So while it notes the mizzled/misled connection, the OED believes that the origin of mizzle in the ‘confuse’ sense is ‘probably a frequentative formation’ incorporating the –le suffix, of which it says:
Middle English -(e)len, Old English -lian:—Old Germanic type -ilôjan, with a frequentative or sometimes a diminutive sense. Among the few examples that go back to Old English are nestle, twinkle, wrestle. In Middle English and early modern English the suffix was extensively used (like the equivalent forms in Middle High German and modern German and in Dutch) to form verbs expressing repeated action or movement, as in brastle, crackle, crumple, dazzle, hobble, niggle, paddle, sparkle, topple, wriggle, etc. Many of these formations are from echoic roots, as babble, cackle, gabble, giggle, guggle, mumble, etc.
Going back further, meigh- in the American Heritage Dictionary’s appendix of Indo-European roots gives us mizzle but also mist and micturate. It’s easy to imagine a metaphorical leap from mizzle ‘drizzle, fine mist’ – which dates to at least the mid-15thC – to mizzle ‘muddle, mystify’. Drizzle and mist, after all, can obscure a person’s vision and disorient them. But this is just my amateur speculation.
The OED also draws possible connections with mizmaze, a reduplicative noun that originally (1547) meant ‘labyrinth’ before broadening (in 1604) to mean ‘a state of confusion or bewilderment; a muddle’; and with maizel, an English dialect word meaning ‘stupefy, bewilder’ or ‘become dazed or bewildered; to wander, esp. confusedly’.
And so I’ll take the hint and stop my confused wandering. What misles have mizzled you?