Word Nerd: 5 foreign words that English-speakers get wrong

12 Sep

Namaste! For starters, here’s a lesson in how not to say that word:

Mispronouncing a foreign word should not be confused with saying it with a different accent. Everybody has some accent, and those of us who lack the talent of Meryl Streep or Jon B. Higgins cannot lose our accent completely.

But anyone can learn to pronounce a foreign word. We mispronounce words when we don’t know which syllable to emphasize, for example, or whether a C is pronounced like an S or a K or something else. It often helps to know which language the word comes from. Here are some foreign words that English-speakers often get wrong.


Robot. This word comes from the Czech robota, which means forced labor. It was a 1920 play that first used ‘robot’ to describe an artificial man or woman. Many English-speakers say ‘ro-bo’, as if it were a French word with a silent T at the end. But the English pronunciation is closer to the original word: ‘ROW-bot’.

Schezwan. People often say ‘shayz-WAAN’ when they are referring to a type of Chinese cuisine (or whatever masquerades as that cuisine in India). But the spelling is wrong, and it causes people to mangle the pronunciation. Sichuan province in southwestern China does have an official English spelling that’s pretty straightforward, actually. Not all of us can say ‘Sichuan’ the proper Chinese way, but we can at least manage ‘si-chuan’.

Bruschetta. Who doesn’t love those slices of toasted Italian bread drenched in olive oil, with garlic and tomatoes on top. But sadly, not all of us order them correctly. It is incorrect to say ‘bru-shetta’, though thankfully that doesn’t make it less delicious. The word comes from Italian, and in Italian, ‘ch’ is always pronounced like K. So it’s ‘bru-SKET-ta’.

Potpourri. Like many French words, this one can be confounding for people who are not familiar with the language of Voltaire and Rousseau. It refers to something elegant and pleasing – a fragrant mixture of dried flower petals and herbs – but in the original French, pot pourri literally means ‘rotten bowl’. It’s pronounced ‘PO-pu-REE’.

Chic. French again. There is no ‘tch’ sound in French, except for foreign words and names. Generally, ‘ch’ is pronounced like ‘sh’, and the I is longer than in English. So the correct pronunciation is ‘sheek’.


By: Uma Asher

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