We all know the feeling. You’re deep in conversation and need to finally say that new word that has sneaked into society's vocabulary. You may have seen it on a million memes or read it in every article that week, yet when you come to say it, you suddenly feel tongue-tied. After all, how do we know we are pronouncing words correctly if we’ve never heard nor said them aloud?
Be it the latest TikTok trend, holiday hotspot or even covid variant, we encounter new and often challenging terms every day. Many of which leave us fumbling around consonants and vowels or muttering it out and hoping nobody notices.
From city names to consumer brands, musicians to movie stars and a whole host of sports stars, too, we all struggle with mastering pronunciation from time to time. But what are the most commonly mispronounced words?
This sent WordTips on a mission to discover the most tongue-twisting terms. Using the online pronunciation dictionaryForvo.com, we delved into the listen count data of a range of words, names and places to see which terms people struggle with the most.
Whether Buenos Aires (bweh·nos ai·ruhz) in Argentina or Baghdad (bag-dad) in Afghanistan, each country has at least one city that’s bound to leave your tongue in a twist. Take a trip around the globe on a pronunciation odyssey to see which cities trip up the most people.
With 195 countries speaking over 7000 languages and dialects, there’s bound to be some bemusement when it comes to nailing the correct pronunciation. With some of the most contested and confusing pronunciations resulting from city names.
Much like learning a language, the trick to mastering the correct pronunciation of city names is to decipher each syllable. Sarajevo is a place that catches plenty of English speakers out as the J is said softly ‘sa·ruh·yay·vow’ while Chicago (shuh·kaa·gow) may confuse some non-natives as ‘Ch’ is pronounced as ‘Sh.’
Despite being nominated for multiple Academy, Bafta and Screen Actors Guild awards, not to mention winning a Golden Globe, Saoirse Ronan(Ser-Scha Row·Nuhn) tops our list as the actor with the most commonly mispronounced name. Gaelic names like Saoirse’s can certainly be trickier to pronounce, thanks to the prevalence of double or triple vowels that leave many of us scratching our heads.
Saoirse’s Ladybird and Little Women co-star Timothée Chalamet also features in our Top 10 most mispronounced actors’ names. Commonly mistaken as Timothy(ti·muh·thee), the correct pronunciation hails from his French heritage, where the double ee and accent make it ‘Timo-tay Shala-may.’ However, both stars of the big screen seem to be fairly laid back about others mispronouncing their tongue-tying names.
Cities have some of the hardest names to master, according to our study. With eight of the top ten hardest city names racking up over a million listens, this category eclipsed any other. Taking the top spot with a whopping 7,000,000 listens was Rio de Janeiro (Ree-oh dey zhuh-nair-oh). As Portuguese is a notoriously tricky language to get right, especially as pronunciation varies throughout the different regions in Brazil, it’s no wonder so many people have needed help along the way.
One theory as to why we might struggle with the correct pronunciation of city names is down to the fact they are sometimes translated to simplify or better suit the syllables used in different vernaculars. While London is simply London (luhn·dn) to an English speaker, London becomes Londres in French, causing some confusion when it comes to pronunciation.
On the other hand, some cities are just downright difficult to decipher. Scotland’s capital Edinburgh is a prime example, often mistakenly pronounced as ‘ed-in-borough’ or with an overemphasis on the gh, similar to Pittsburgh. The correct pronunciation is ‘ed-in-bruh,’ with advice from locals being not to dwell on the vowels and say the last ‘bruh’ section faster and softer.
Brand names are some of the most common terms that confuse and confound us. As new companies emerge and grow, we are often left trying to figure out once and for all how their name should be pronounced. We found that some of the biggest brands in the world still stump the most people, with search engine supremo Google (Goo-guhl) taking the top spot with 1.3 million listens.
Although German cars are renowned for their high performance and luxurious ride, plenty of people seem to struggle when it comes to correctly pronouncing their names. So much so, a quartet of German car manufacturers, including Porsche (Por-shuh), BMW (bee em double yoo), Mercedes Benz (mer-say-deez benz) and Audi (Ow-dee), all appear in our top 10 mispronounced brand names.
While BMW is, in fact, an acronym, standing for Bayerische Motoren Werke or Bavarian Motor Works, the initials themselves are still pronounced very differently in various dialects. While in English we know it as ‘bee em double yoo,’ being a German brand, the original pronunciation is more akin to 'bee em vee.’
As a truly global sport, it’s no wonder we frequently come across football players whose names prove trickier to pronounce than scoring the perfect panenka penalty. Whether a legend of the game like Lionel Messi (Lee-oh-nell mess-i) or a star of tomorrow in Kylian Mbappe (Kee-lee-an M-bap-pay), getting the pronunciation spot-on in soccer is no easy task.
During last summer's EURO 2020 tournament, organizers Uefa even released a cheat sheet ahead of the quarter-finals to help fans gain a better grasp on some of the harder pronunciations. With the World Cup occurring in Qatar later this year, now is the perfect time to brush up on your delivery before cheering your favorite players on. With 8 of our top 10 footballers likely to feature at the tournament, including Polish trio Wojciech Szczęsny (Voy-chekh Sh-chen-sni), Jakub Błaszczykowski (Yak-oob bla-wa- ko-sk-i) and Krzysztof Piątek (Kshish-tof Pee-yon-tek).
When it comes to Polish phonology, many people struggle to get their heads around pronunciation, thanks to an abundance of complex consonant clusters. This is where we encounter a series of successive consonants without any vowels. Although this occurs in many languages, including English, we see it much more frequently in Polish words, sometimes finding as many as six consonants in a row, just as in Jakub Blaszczykowski's name.
Much like their fellow professional footballers, basketballers often face the same perils when it comes to mispronunciation. With the NBA drawing the world's best players to the US to practice their trade, we see names from around the globe appearing on jerseys, ready to boggle the mind of unsuspecting fans.
In fact, throughout the last couple of years, we have seen prominent basketballers challenge announcers, match officials and broadcasters for consistently getting names wrong. WNBA stars Natalie Achonwa(Na-ta-lee uh-chon-wuh)and Aari McDonald (Air-e Muk-don-uhld) recently made a stand, claiming these mistakes are disrespectful and discriminatory, with there being no excuse for such errors, given that pronunciation guides are provided to prevent such gaffes.
Ed Sheeran (Ed- Sheer-an), Shakira (Shuh-keeuh-ruh) and Justin Bieber (juh·stuhn bee·buh) are perhaps some of the most popular musicians on the planet today. Their catchy songs are known word for word by millions of people; however, their names don’t seem to roll off the tongue quite as easily.
Billie Eilish (Bi-Lee Eye-lish) is another musician at the top of their game, boasting the biggest vocabulary of any modern-day pop star, along with two best-selling albums to boot. Billie finds herself at the top of a very different chart here, though, as she lays claim to the fourth most mispronounced musician name in our top 10 and her name being one of the most difficult words to come out of 2021.
Millions of people turn to online pronunciation dictionaries such asForvo.com when faced with a particularly devilish word. By delving into the data and totting up the listen counts for an array of terms, names and places, we’ve found the most commonly mispronounced words around the world.
The average American is said to know, understand and utilize 20,000 words in their vocabulary, plus another 22,000 words that are known passively. Considering there are over 170,000 words in the English lexicon, that means we have a grasp on less than 25% of our own language.
Perhaps it’s not so surprising that so many words, names and places prove difficult to pronounce. Remember the next time you stumble on a tricky word, try to break it down into syllables, look for letter combinations you know or utilize online pronunciation databases to hear it expertly spoken by a range of different speakers.
To find the most mispronounced words, we utilized the largest pronunciation dictionary in the world: Forvo.com. Forvo uses sound clips in many different languages in an attempt to facilitate the learning of languages and correct pronunciation of words.
After drawing up a seed list of actors, brands, sports stars, musicians and cities, we were able to delve into the data to discover how many times each name or place had been listened to in order to learn the correct pronunciation.
Once the listen count for each term had been recorded, we found the Top 10 entries by the number of listens for each category.
To find the most mispronounced city in every country, we searched for cities with populations over 100,000. If no cities matched the criteria for a country, up to 10 most populous cities were selected depending on availability. The city name with the highest listen count was then selected for each country.