20 Words That Are Really Hard to Pronounce in the English Language


Beth Worthy

Beth Worthy

4/10/2019

One of the most problematic aspects of documenting words from audio is deciphering words that may be mispronounced due to being difficult for foreigners and even English-speaking Americans. That's one of the many reasons to hire translation services that can do the work for you. Here are 20 English words that commonly cause pronunciation problems. 

1. Colonel - Derived from Middle French, this pronunciation is "ker-nul." The reason it's a strange word for foreigners is that it lacks an "r," despite using that sound when spoken. The second "o" is silent, which adds to the confusion. 

2. Worcestershire - Americans mispronounce this name since it uses its traditional British-English pronunciation, which is "woo-ster-sher" instead of wor-cest-er-shi-er." The ending "shire" means "county" in Britain. So the Worcestershire sauce used as food seasoning is merely named after the region in which it originates. It may help to remember that after "wo" the "rce" part of the word is silent and "shire" is pronounced "sher," like in New Hampshire.

3. Mischievous - While many Americans say "mis-CHEEV-ee-us," the actual pronunciation is "MIS-chiv-us." The confusion lies in the fact that it's a three-syllable word but appears to have four syllables. 

4. Draught - Travelers from outside the United States or the UK might say "drot," but the correct pronunciation of this British word is "draft," which is also what it means, as in cool air or alcoholic beverage from a keg.  

5. Quinoa - This super food has gained popularity among health food consumers in recent years, even though it's a grain from the ancient world. Some people might mispronounce it as "qwin-o-ah," but this Spanish word has multiple pronunciations, such as "KEEN-wah," "ken-WAH" or "KEN-on-ah."

6. Onomatopoeia - Have you even ever heard of this word, which applies to words that imitate the sound they make?  It's actually a six-syllable word and is pronounced "on-o-mot-o-PEE-a." An example of a term that would fit this description is "buzz."

7. Scissors - While most Americans know how to pronounce this word as "sizz-ers," people who are just learning English might say "skiss-ors." They might think the "s" at the end makes it plural, although it's a singular tool referred to as a pair of scissors. 

8. Anemone - From the buttercup family, this wild, colorful plant may look hard to say for any person unfamiliar with gardening. It's pronounced "ah-NEM-oh-nee." Just ignore the "mone" ending, which looks like it should rhyme with "phone" but doesn't. 

9. Isthmus - If you study geography, you might recognize this two-syllable term as a reference to a tight strip of land between two seas. It helps if you forget about the "th," which is silent, as the word is pronounced "is-muss."

10. Otorhinolaryngologist – Many people can trip over this lengthy word that is used in the medical profession for an ear, nose and throat doctor. It's understandably complex for anyone outside of the medical field, as it's pronounced "oh-toh-rye-no-lar-ing-GOL-uh-jee." A more convenient title for this medical position is "ENT."

11. Squirrel - German speakers may have problems with this animal word since the "rl" sound is usually coming at the end of a syllable. They might say "skwörl," when most Americans say "SKWIR-rel."

12. Ignominious - Articulate speakers who show off vocabulary use this word to describe a person who is dishonorable." It's a five-syllable word that is pronounced "ig-ne-MIN-ee-us."

13. Successful - Here's one of the easiest words on this list for anyone to pronounce, although people unfamiliar with English might be confused by the double c and double “s” since the "cc" has a "k" sound. Yet just "c" alone can be an "s," "k" or "ch" sound. 

14. Sixth - Numbers are among the first things students of second languages learn to pronounce, but adding a "th" after "x" can be tricky for some people new to English. 

15. Phenomenon - This singular form of "phenomena" means an amazing event and is pronounced "fi-NOM-uh-non."

16. Rural - Residents of farms and ranches are familiar with this term, which is pronounced "roor-uhl," whereas urban dwellers who don't talk about less populated areas much might find it to be a tongue twister.

17. Specific - Here's another easy word for most to decipher, but difficult for those who don't understand that "s" and "c" can have the same, yet different sounds within the same word. 

18. Synecdoche - This rare literary device is more read than spoken, making it unfamiliar to many, as it's pronounced "se-NEK-de-kee."

19. Temperature - For some people, "tem-per-uh-chur" is difficult to say quickly, as the "t" takes on a "ch" sound. Many people chop the four syllables down to three. 

20. Often - Many Americans, more often than not, drop the "t" to say "OFF-uhn," while others say "OFT-uhn." But either pronunciation is acceptable in the United States.

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Beth Worthy

Beth Worthy

Beth Worthy is the Director of Operations for GMR Transcription Services, Inc an Orange County, California based company that has been providing accurate and affordable transcription services since 2004. She has enjoyed success at GMR for almost ten years now and has helped the company grow. Within two years of Beth managing GMR Transcription, it had doubled in sales and was named one of the OC Business Journal’s fastest-growing private companies. Outside of work, she likes spending time with her husband and two kids.