Behind the Scenes: Slate Editors’ Emails to Seth Stevenson About Bubble Vocab

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April 29 2014 2:32 PM
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Bubble Vocabulary: The Slate Email Thread

Behind the scenes of Seth Stevenson’s piece on words you don’t quite know how to use.

140414_GW_BubbleWords-new

Illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker

Excerpts from an email thread on the Slate Editors alias, April 1, 2014.

From: Seth Stevenson
To: Slate Editors
Subject: Your help: “bubble vocab”

Hi all,

I’m working on a piece about “bubble vocabulary”—words at the edge of your vocab. Maybe you don’t 100 percent know how to pronounce them or what they mean. And yet you reach for one during a job interview, or a wedding toast, or a radio appearance. Later, you rush to Google to check if you pronounced and employed the word correctly.

This came up when a friend said “execrable” and I wasn’t sure he’d pronounced it right, but I realized I’d never once spoken it out loud. Others have mentioned their fear of saying “correlative” and “folderol” for fear of pronouncing them wrong. David Foster Wallace wrote about pronouncing “facade” with a hard c in a student seminar and still feeling hot embarrassment at the memory.

So: Please tell me your own bubble vocab moments. Do you have any specific memories of reaching for a word in conversation and then fretting that you might not have wielded it properly? Ever stopped yourself from using a word at the last second out of concern that you hadn’t mastered it?

Thanks!
Seth

From: John Dickerson
To: Slate Editors

Detritus is one that I never know how to pronounce because I think you can pronounce it two ways, right?

From: Dan Kois
To: Slate Editors

I didn’t ask a question on a podcast the other day because I wasn’t sure how to pronounce “correlative”

From: Emily Bazelon
To: Slate Editors

Atavistic. Actually this one is David’s—he says it on the Gabfest and I’m never sure what he means, and then I look it up and forget again.

From: David Plotz
To: Slate Editors

Dispositive
I totally say atavistic all the time
Bespoke (though I finally learned what that means)
Heuristic
Ontological, which I have used wrong on the Gabfest, been corrected about, and immediately forgot the real meaning of

From: Bryan Lowder
To: Slate Editors

As I am currently writing toward a phenomenology of cleaning, I am (for the moment) very clear on the difference between ontology and epistemology. AMA!

From: Juliana Jiménez Jaramillo
To: Slate Editors

Don’t know if this counts, but for many years I confused bedazzled and embezzled.  

From: Chris Wade
To: Slate Editors

“He bedazzled almost $90,000 worth of company assets”
“Remember, she had that embezzled jean jacket”

From: Chris Kirk
To: Slate Editors

I said “gesture” like “guest-ur” for about five years and it was traumatizing when I found out.

From: David Haglund
To: Slate Editors
In high school English, I said the word “epitome” as “epp-uh-tome,” and my (brilliant) teacher said very gently, “I think it's epitome, ” and I said back to her, full of confidence, “I think it's two different words” (because I'd both heard it and read it but not connected what I'd heard and read somehow). She didn’t correct me. So embarrassing when I later realized my error.

From: Katy Waldman
To: Slate Editors

Just sent Seth some French compound phrases that I will never master: bete noire, objet d’art. And I’d add to those: epaulet, cause celebre, piece de resistance (though the Lego movie helped with that one). 

From: Laura Helmuth
To: Slate Editors

Ditto on the French. Oeuvre, fin de siècle.

Although the only time to say these words aloud is if you’re making fun of your own or others’ smartypants tendencies, so maybe it’s meta to mangle them.

But good news—vocabulary is one skill that continues to improve throughout life. I can send studies if you want to mention this line of research in your story. Some studies show a pretty much linear relationship between age and vocab from 20s through your 80s. Yay old people! 

From: Mike Pesca
To: Slate Editors

My bete noire is sui generis. I say it like an Arkansas pig farmer who is benevolent. 

From: Julia Turner
To: Slate Editors

I avoid solipsism and solecism because I can’t remember which is which.

On occasion when this has happened to me on the Culturefest I pull a diva move and do it over, correctly—Dana do you remember the last one I biffed like this? It was in the last month or so and I did a retake.

From: Dan Kois
To: Slate Editors

I didn’t demand a retake when it turned out I spent an entire Spoiler Special pronouncing “Soderbergh” wrong!

From: Jessica Winter
To: Slate Editors

Related: the entire world pronounces “Scorsese” wrong.

From: Julia Turner
To: Slate Editors

It was mordant! I think I said mordant where I meant morbid. I am not sure what mordant means.

From: Andy Bouvé
To: Slate Editors

I thought I was being fancy by using denouement a couple times in a screenwriting course in college. Problem was I pronounced it “de-noo-ment,” which I only realized about a year later while watching some movie with the director’s commentary enabled. 

From: Allison Benedikt
To: Slate Editors

All of these words (except for Soderbergh, bespoke, and bedazzled/embezzled). Also: I still don’t know how to pronounce niche, Cannes gives me the sweats (I go with “can” not “con”—is that right or wrong?), and I just heard Jessica Winter say the word “avuncular” to Swans and I don’t know what that means. 

Also, I said “all intensive purposes” for a long, long time. I’m just going to own that. 

From: Kristin Hohenadel
To: Slate Editors

I once dated a man with a ravage/ravish problem.

From: David Plotz
To: Slate Editors

This is the best one! 

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