Mizzled by misles

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.

From the foreground a gravel path veers right then left around a wooded corner. Dominating the scene is a beech tree, its many curving branches bare but covered in green moss. Behind it there are lots of younger trees, all bare of leaves, and made dim by thick mist.

Late-morning mist, or mizzle, on Knockma Hill in County Galway

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?

50 Responses to Mizzled by misles

  1. This is wonderful, and it’s interesting to note That sometimes the “correct” Pronunciation is theoretically in accurate. For instance, helicopter or perhaps to be pronounced helico – Puh-tayr (I have to break it out phonetically because it doesn’t make much sense in English pronunciation, which is why we pronounce helicopter the way we do. But then that’s true of many of these things). The route, of course, is helik – wing (pter- As in pterodactyl). As a child I always pronounced photographer as if it was photograph, with a little afterthought of -er on the end. PhotoGRAPHer. Because that just made sense to me .

    • Stan Carey says:

      Helicopter is a striking example – and the fact that copter has broken off to become an established abbreviation makes the etymology all the more surprising. I usually refer to helix and pterodactyl to show its ‘hidden’ structure.
      ‘PhotoGRAPHer’ makes immediate sense in light of its derivation, and is a nice example of misles that don’t last long because of the words’ frequency. Thanks for your comment.

  2. Dan Weckerly says:

    As a kid, I remember reading /gazebo/ as “GAZE-bo.”

  3. Maury Stern says:

    As a youngster I called Porky Pig’s friend Peta NEE ya. I also mispronounced Fatigue, but someone mispronounced it in school to great laughter in class, so I never said it aloud.

    Maury Stern

  4. jinksbee says:

    So many old friends here that I’ve mis-pronounced! My first misle was from “Alice in Wonderland.” I couldn’t figure out why a personal name was being used as a verb: “I Denny it!” 😵 (deny)

  5. sarahlivne says:

    So do you think perhaps it is the other way round – that mizzled existed first, and had multiple spellings, until one day someone read the “misled” (that had been written to mean mizzled = confused) and interpreted it to be the past participle of mislead?

    • Stan Carey says:

      That may have happened on occasion, but I don’t know that it affected the words’ development. Mislead has been around since Old English, and its past participle misled appears to predate mizzled. Just when and how the two forms became connected, or confused, is not clear to me.

  6. Deb Kean says:

    Which is why hyphens are necessary! Americans don’t use them, and increasingly New Zealanders don’t as we become more and more American. Yet I said ‘cooperate’ (as in the process of making barrels) when I first saw the word co-operate written by an American. I stand up for hyphens!

    • Stan Carey says:

      Yes, hyphens can definitely help, much of the time. In the case of co(-)operate, I think context and familiarity generally render the hyphen optional; just yesterday, while proofreading, I removed one such hyphen because the co-operate was an anomaly among a document full of cooperate. In conclusion:

      • I agree about hyphens. They can be useful even when the dictionary doesn’t write the word that way. One verb I use almost daily at work, is ‘resend”, as in to resend a file. But I tend to use a hyphen (sometimes unnecessarily), just so I can avoid writing that “I resent something”. You might think that I am feeling embittered about that the file. Even if it’s only a momentary confusion, I’d rather not inflict that in the reader.

        BTW, I’m confused about how someone can mispronounce coworkers. What do they say instead?

        • Stan Carey says:

          Good call. Resend is a word I use only occasionally, and I don’t hyphenate it. But I always hyphenate re-sent for the same reason you do: to avoid even momentary hesitation.

          People may mispronounce coworker(s) by saying the first syllable like ‘cow’ rather than ‘co’.

          • Cow-orkers! As in, “Some cow-orkers down at the abattoir absolutely love orking the cows. I don’t enjoy it myself, but at least it pays well.”

            Some people really pronounce it as cow-orkers?

            Well, that’s. just. mental.

          • Stan Carey says:

            Ha! I don’t think I’ve ever heard it pronounced that way, and it’s probably quite rare. But even if people know how to pronounce it, they may briefly miscue its sound in their own head when they see the cow… at the start of the word. And that’s enough to qualify it as a misle.

  7. Deb Kean says:

    Another thing – half the staff on Radio New Zealand say biopic as in myopic instead of biopic. American influence?

    • Stan Carey says:

      Interesting! Imitation and contagion may play a part, then positive feedback kicks in. And if the (mis)pronunciation has a foothold on radio, that will spread it further.

  8. astraya says:

    This afternoon, a colleague asked me how to spell ‘ally’, then said ‘It looks like it should be pronounced ‘alley”.

    In one choir I sing in, a running joke was the pronunciation of awry as awe-ry, after one member pronounced it like that.

    One town I moved to as a young adult had a Berserker Rd. I think the people I stayed with initially were just waiting for me to mis-pronounce that. It’s actually Ber-sikker Rd, which makes the ‘right’ pronunciation wrong and the wrong one right.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Ally is a good example. It could also easily be pronounced ‘awly’. In a similar vein there’s barfly as ‘barf-ly’.
      And I would absolutely have mispronounced Berserker Rd.

  9. Stan Carey says:

    From Twitter:






    and of course misled:

  10. astraya says:

    By complete coincidence, I borrowed a book titled Wish, by the Australian author Peter Goldsworthy, from my local library a few hours ago. It’s about a young man who learned ‘Sign’ (viz Auslan, or Australian Sign Language) at an early age from his deaf parents and who describes it as his first language and English as his second, teaching it to a gorilla ‘liberated’ by a zoologist/animal liberationist.

    Early in the book, he describes learning many English words by reading books in the library where his mother worked, learning them by sight, not sound. One of them is, you guessed, misled: “Others hear Miss Lead when they see the word on a page, I hear mistled. As in mistletoe.”

    Which a) suggests ‘missle’ and not ‘mizzle’, and b) raises the question of how he knew how mistletoe was pronounced.

    • Stan Carey says:

      That’s a fine coincidence! I hadn’t even thought of the ‘mistled’ reading. I’m sure he’s not the only one to be misled in that particular way, but I imagine the miz- and mize- versions are a lot more frequent. ‘Miss Lead’ brings up another problem, of course: ‘Miss Led’ would be less ambiguous.

  11. Dawn in NL says:

    I certainly have quite a number of these, since most of my ‘big’ words came from books and were never spoken in my circle. A couple that come to mind, hyperbole, mausoleum and vehement. I only found out the correct pronunciations in my late 20s.

    It is also a problem when I’m reading Dutch, in particular because the rules for splitting words are different and in my mind lead to confusion. Unfortunately I can’t think of any examples.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Oh, those are interesting examples. Was mausoleum like ‘maw-ZOH-lee-um’? I’m starting to wish I’d kept a list of all the words I pronounced wrong since I learned to read.
      Other languages can definitely interfere. There’s a running joke in our family about saying words in an unnecessarily French way.

  12. Colin McCarthy says:

    Entrance is sometimes magically transformed to entrance (the verb) in my brain!

  13. mollymooly says:

    impious is etymologically im+pious but pronounced as though imp+ious. I think the i vowel in “pious” changed with the Great Vowel Shift but the corresponding one in “impious” stayed put.

    • Stan Carey says:

      It can also be pronounced im+pious – I think I’ve heard it this way more than imp+ious, though it’s not one I hear often either way. Most dictionaries include the two pronunciations, and most of those favour the imp- form.

      Unrelatedly, I’ve just remembered being misled by posthumous, maybe into my teens.

      • Deb Kean says:

        Having just watched one of the Harry Potter films, I am reminded of a name I always thought as a child was Herm-e-own. I pronounced it that way until my mother corrected me, and find it amusing that in the Harry Potter film it’s a French character who calls the girl Herm-e-own, the very one who is least likely to do so.

        • Stan Carey says:

          Oh yes, Hermione is not at all intuitive, at least for most native-English speakers. I don’t remember if the French-character mispronunciation occurs in the books or if it was an innovation for the film world.

  14. Stan Carey says:

    More from Twitter:








  15. A2dez says:

    Thanks for this lovely set of examples. I have just come across your blog and will be reading plenty more of it.


    I too have had a long-standing interest in cases where readers choose a new (or ‘wrong’) pronunciation because the spelling suggests two possible readings. A good example is ‘omega’, which can be stressed on the first or second syllable. In my PhD on English spelling formation I tried to model and predict spelling pronunciations occurring at the foot-level, where they cannot be disputed, as opposed to the segmental level which linguists have disregarded for aeons.

    See http://tiny.cc/izmo3y (p208-221)


    Meanwhile, here’s the short version:

    John Wells once complained the word ‘omega’ was subject to “arbitrary, think-it-up-yourself pronunciations’. http://tiny.cc/opno3y

    My belief is that readers look at the spelling and choose a stress pattern and only then do they sort out the segmental-level pronunciation. The traditional British dactyl /ˈəʊ.mɪ.gə/, is similar in structure to ‘I.ta.ly’, ‘enema’ and ‘editing’. I notate them as (o.me.ga), (i.ta.ly), (e.ne.ma) and (e.di.ting) to show the foot structure.

    The pronunciations not recommended by Wells are usually parsed as o(me.ga), ending in a trochee. This renders: /oʊ.ˈmeɪ.ga/, /oʊ.ˈmi:.ga/ and the dated /oʊ.ˈme.ga/, which was apparently listed by the New English Dictionary (see OED3: p131185).

    The near-disappearance of this last pronunciation is interesting because the pronunciation /oʊ.ˈme.ga/ would require a spelling in order for the spelling and pronunciation to reinforce each other. Compare the of to where the polymorphemic structure allows us to double the consonant letter in order to show the stress patterns (obviously we cannot change Latin-derived to , but the website could regularise their spelling to .

    • Stan Carey says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments. Omega is certainly an interesting case, and it’s a word I’m aware of having pronounced different ways at different times or in different contexts, for reasons that were perhaps largely arbitrary or motivated by immediate euphony or prosody rather than anything considered or systematic.

  16. A2dez says:

    It might also to distinguish between phonological and morphological Mizzles.

    These words are given the wrong stress pattern:

    e.g. pe(ne.lo.pe) v ˈ(pe.ne)ˌ(lo.pe)

    These words are not parsed properly into morphemes


    {sun}{dried} and, I might add


    The case of biopic may be in between.

    ˈ(bi.o)ˌ(pic) v bi(o.pic)

    The latter, ‘incorrect’, pronunciation is reminiscent of other words ending in , like (tur.me.ric) and Justin (Ti.pu.ric) where the temptation is analogise with a(to.mic) and sys(te.mic).

    However, as you note, the key is the possiblity of having a more familiar reading, as in


    (btw, the idea of splitting (lo.pe) into two orthographic syllables comes from Martin Evertz, and it allows for consistency across the system, hence (lo.per), (lo.ping) and even (lo.ped).

  17. Steve says:

    I still think of “biopic” as “bi-O-pic” perhaps because I only see it written, and hardly ever hear anyone say it aloud.

    Similarly, those little raised plastic letters on audio devices that spel MIC — I always pronounce it “mick”. I plug the mike into the MIC socket.

  18. […] and misle to aisle.) Earlier this week, the distinguished or eminent Stan Carey posted about being Mizzled by misles, to which various commenters have responded with their own examples, or ones they’ve heard. […]

  19. maceochi says:

    I had no idea there was another way to pronounce “biopic”. The difference in pronunciation between the two ways is not actually that great, and it is easy to imagine how even the “correct” pronunciation could “slide” into rhyming with myopic, as they both stress the i. This may be especially the case in dialects with strong primary stress – such as Irish English. (A side note: the Swedish for “cinema” is “bio”, short for “biograf”. They are “living pictures”, after all.)

    • Stan Carey says:

      That’s true – they’re not very dissimilar. Also, biopic is not an especially common word, and is used far more in specialist text than in speech (see genre graph from COCA, below), where the ‘bi-OPic’ pronunciation may, in many cases, be common enough to mask the fact that it’s nonstandard:

  20. Stan Carey says:

    The QI elves just tweeted about this, so there are dozens more examples in the replies:

  21. […] of these things may already have a word, albeit not widely known (misles, for example); some almost certainly don’t, at least in English. If you know a word in any […]

  22. One of my early mobile phones had a setting, similar to Bluetooth, which was called ‘Infrared’. To be honest, to this day, I’m still not 100% sure if it was supposed to be infra-red or in-frared.

  23. […] often learn words from books before they hear them spoken – which can lead to misles – so the pronunciation notes under each word are welcome. There’s a short, friendly […]

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