Learning words and the one that got away

Have you ever searched your mind for the perfect word and come up blank? The word is there, almost on the tip of your tongue, but it is evading you. And you really can’t wait forever, suspending conversation while you search for that elusive word. You just have to substitute another, lesser, word even if it doesn’t express your thought properly. And the missing word? It becomes the one that got away!


My mind is filled with many words but as I get older I find that more of them are getting away from me – only to return when they are no longer wanted! It can be frustrating but at least there are replacements around. It makes me think about what a privilege it is for us to know so many words, with so many shades of meaning. I also wonder at the mysterious process by which we learn them in the first place.

When your children are small, one of the great joys of a parent is to watch and hear them discover new things – new attractions, new mobility and new words! ‘Dad’, ‘Mum’, ‘Up’, ‘Bye’, ‘Ta’ are among those that tend to make the early list (at least in my home). Experts say that the first proper words tend to arrive at nine to 11 months but it can vary greatly. A lot of those early words get a bit muddled up and some sounds can be hard to make. When my daughter was a toddler, I remember delighting in asking her to say ‘yellow’ as it always came out as ‘lellow’ and sounded incredibly cute.

Children develop their language at an incredible rate as they try to make sense of the world and communicate their feelings or demands. And if they get angry or upset with a sibling or playmate, a common refrain of adults is to ‘Use Your Words!’ This can be hard to do when a certain person is playing with your favourite toy or has pushed you down in the sandpit. But somehow we learn to do it (or at least most of us do!).

But the learning process doesn’t stop there. It’s on to school and learning how to read and write, or how to tell the most engaging story in ‘Show and Tell’. I seemed to learn a lot of my words through books. I have always loved to read and the great thing about that is it really increases your knowledge of words.

But there is a downside. I still remember when the class was taking it in turns to read aloud in primary school and it was finally my turn to read. In the text I had to read was the word ‘picturesque’ – a word I knew and understood from seeing it in books. Unfortunately, that didn’t mean I knew how to pronounce it. Out of my mouth came the word ‘pictureskew’ to gales of laughter from the class.

It was laughter I was to hear again over the years, as I went on to speak out the words ‘quay’ and ‘awry’ without ever actually hearing them pronounced. Some old friends of mine still occasionally call me ‘Orie’ despite there being nothing awry in the way I say the word these days!

Do you have any stories about early words, mispronunciations or words that got away? Drop me a line in the comment (reply) section for this post as I’d love to hear them!

6 thoughts on “Learning words and the one that got away

  1. One of the funniest mispronunciations was from my sister. No-one in our family had a moustache, so she never heard it pronounced. You can imagined the gales of laughter from her classmates when she pronounced it “mouse-ache”

    Liked by 1 person

      1. We Australians might think that we can have problems with pronunciation, but it is nothing compared with our Asian friends speaking a tonal language when the one word can have 5 different meanings, depending on the tone. And to our untrained western ears they all sound much the same. So in Thai you may try and call your lady-friend’s mother “mother”, but end up calling her a cow!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. A dangerous mistake to make! And yet it is probably more likely to happen if you are an English-speaker actually trying to learn the language! One wonders how many mistakes like these are made?!


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