Monday, May 23, 2016

Always learning something new . . .

Here I am, seventy-six years old, and still discovering funny little mistaken ideas stemming back to childhood. I just learned I’ve been mispronouncing a word wrong since I first learned it in fourth grade.

My dad read aloud to us a lot. A favorite book of his and mine was Nathanial Hawthorne’s Twice Told Tales and A Wonder Book for Girls and Boys. The two books, originally published separately, were bound in the same volume we owned, and my favorites were Hawthorne’s retelling of many Greek myths. Before I took a fantastic course on Greek and Roman Mythology at the University of Washington, that first exposure in fourth grade was my base-line for everything I knew about Greek mythology (and I had to unlearn a lot of misconceptions that Hawthorne propagated based on his nineteenth century understanding).

One of my favorite characters was Pegasus the flying horse, and I especially loved how he heroically enabled the killing of the chimera. My father (who—when I was ten—could do no wrong) pronounced the name of the three-species-monster as “shimmer-uh” as he read the story aloud, with the accent on the first syllable and a nice, soft ‘sh’ sound starting off the word.

I’ve read the word from time to time over my lifetime, each time imagining that’s the pronunciation, and never questioned it—ever—and never heard anyone else say it, either. Well, at least not that I realized, until . . .

. . . an NPR story about biotechnology’s push to  intentionally create hybrid embryos from several different species came on my car radio, and the announcer talked about the creation of a modern-day monster, a “kye-meer’-uh.”

What? It took me a few seconds to make sense of this new word, and then a quick judgment that the announcer was mispronouncing chimera!  But wait—wouldn’t he have checked the pronunciation before doing a radio program about it? A big ‘oops’ crossed my thoughts about then, a big "Don't tell me it's my mistake!"

As soon as I arrived home, I opened the Mirriam-Webster dictionary on my iPad and touched the icon of the speaker on the word chimera—and, sure enough, I have mispronounced it for about sixty-six years. In my head, anyway. I don't think I've ever needed use the word.

I’m smiling as I write this. I love how humbling a little event like this can be. I’m smiling thinking about how my dad probably heard the word mispronounced by his dad when A Wonder Book for Girls and Boys was read aloud to him in the early 1900s. I’m smiling thinking how hard we both would have laughed over this perpetuation of error, if I could share it with him. I wish.

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