COMMENTARY

Potato, puh-tah-toe: Inside the wide world of mispronounced foods

From tomato to turmeric, food names can be easy to mess up. At the end of the day, does it matter?

Published December 5, 2022 3:00PM (EST)

Couple looking confused at product in supermarket (Getty Images/zoranm)
Couple looking confused at product in supermarket (Getty Images/zoranm)

Pronunciation is a funny thing, isn't it? (It's also a strangely difficult word to spell, by the way). Some words are inherently challenging, while others may be tricky due to particular quirks, peculiar spellings or cultural differentiations — the rolling "R" in Spanish words, the syllabic intonation of Italian words and so on and so forth. Some pronunciations are strictly regional or geographically-driven, possibly even passed down from generation to generation, steeped in the parlance of that family. 

Other situations are more potato-puh-tah-toe, tomato-tah-mah-toe, such as pecan, which can be both pee-cahn and peh-cahn. My true kryptonite, which always results in a physical cringe, is mascarpone (I'll never comprehend why people pronounce it mar-sca-pone?)

Mispronounced food words are very common, especially as more and more foods enter the zeitgeist, expanding the lexicon and taking nomenclature to new levels. This also results in mix-ups between ingredients, Googling-at-the-dinner-table to find out what certain menu items are or sheer pandemonium in the grocery store. With the influx of food programming incorporating more and more elevated ingredients and diversifying the cultural domain of dishes, customs and recipes, the average food vocabulary has increased tenfold. 

In an interesting study, WordTips searched popular foods and drinks in the database Forvo, which they deem "a library of user-submitted pronunciation recordings." WordTips then "considered food and drink with a higher number of listens to be the most mispronounced."

Some of their findings via this metric, though, seem peculiar to me: why would "burger" and "bourbon" be hard to pronounce? Other strange inclusions are fried chicken, cupcake, coleslaw, grits and milkshake, all of which seem pretty easy-to-pronounce to me. Other included words like chorizo, rioja, poke, croissant, gnocchi, pierogi and pae de quiero most definitely make sense, though. 

WordTips also broke down their findings by country, which certainly diversifies the findings; for example, lahmacun is the most listened to food word on Forvo in Turkey, whereas it is probably hardly searched whatsoever in Japan or Brazil. In addition, hummus has myriad pronunciations and its phrasing differs from country to country, while FoodTips claims that rioja is the "most mispronounced drink in the world." 

Eat This Not That has a list of their own which is much more in line with what I had anticipated, with items like skyr, acai, quinoa, cacao, rooibos, bruschetta and crudites.

Other notes: sherbet is a peculiar word (and a totally different food than sorbet) and turmeric is spelled TUR-meric but is often pronounced TOO-meric. Taste of Home lists some more, such as jicama, radicchio, vichyssoise and pho. It wasn't listed, but I'd also add gefilte fish as a fun one. And these two outlets are only a drop in the ocean when it comes to the sheer amount of "most mispronounced words" stories throughout the interwebs. Clearly, the list goes on and on.

According to Grammarphobia, turmeric is a actually word in which either pronunciation is "acceptable," at least according to the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. And technically, shouldn't that be the case for ... every word? 

If we're being honest with ourselves  — literally none of this matters!

For example, here's a story featuring yours truly. When I was working at Coldstone Creamery back in my high school days, I would routinely be taken to task for saying items in my standard New Jersey accent. I even put together a particular (mock) order specifically to show off said accent: "a small coffee ice cream with chocolate sauce," in which every O and AU became an AW. It became something in which I'd actually purposely exaggerate the accent just so my colleagues would get a kick out of it. Regardless if someone says "chaw-colate" or "chock-uh-lit," though ... who cares? 

As the illustrious Kacey Musgraves espouses in her anthemic "Follow Your Arrow," "when the straight and narrow gets a little too straight ... just follow your arrow wherever it points." I'm certain that she wasn't referring to food pronunciations here, but the ethos carries over, does it not? What's actually going to happen if you pronounce chorizo incorrectly amongst pals, at a restaurant or when chatting about lunch orders with colleagues? Will you be stoned? Will you be arrested for indecent pronunciation? 

The tapestry of our mispronunciations help make the word go round, right? Or something like that.

We all have an internal dialogue, so however you're reading these words out loud, go on with your bad self.

(Just don't say mar-sca-pone .... please.)

 

In case this does really matter to you, though, here's a run-down on how to pronounce all the word listed above:

Skyr: ski-ur

Acai: ah-sa-e

Quinoa: keen-wah

Cacao: cuh-cow

Rooibos: roy-bus

Bruschetta: bruw-shkett-uh

Crudites: crew-dee-tays

Jicama: hi-come-uh

Radicchio: ruh-dee-key-oh

Vichyssoise: vih-she-swahz

Pho: fuh

Gefilte fish: guh-filt-uh fish

Chorizo: chuh-ree-zo

Rioja: ree-oh-uh

Poke: poh-kay

Croissant: kruh-sont 

Gnocchi: nyow-key

Pierogi: pee-roh-gee

Pao de quiejo: pow-de-kay-joe

Hummus: hu-mys or hyoo-mys


By Michael La Corte

Michael is a food writer, recipe editor and educator based in his beloved New Jersey. After graduating from the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, he worked in restaurants, catering and supper clubs before pivoting to food journalism and recipe development. He also holds a BA in psychology and literature from Pace University.

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