I hate words that don’t sound like their meaning. A friend in England recently wrote me that he was “rather chuffed” that his business was going so well. I did a double-take. Either he was making no sense, I decided, or I had it completely wrong, thanks to my reliance on “phonetic meaning,” as I suppose you might call my system (sic). When it comes to puzzling out what an unfamiliar word actually means, I sound it out internally and decide on that basis what it just has to mean.
Suppose I’d been strolling down some street in Mayfair, bluebirds twittering in my heart, the world both my oyster and on a string, and I’d encountered this friend on the street and he’d taken one look at me and observed, “I say, old boy, you look rather chuffed today,” I might have felt a touch of mild resentment. I look at chuffed and I see, then hear, “pissed off.” Or the equivalent. Perhaps it’s the double f that suggests the double s in pissed. Or could it be that chuffed suggests chafed, which is how I feel when the world is too much with me, late and soon?
Then there’s huff, as in being in one. And for the cosmopolitan word-sounder, ever so delicate hints of chauffage and its relations, implying a heated state, that impatient flush that accompanies frustration, irritation and distemper, and is known in Texas as “the red ass.” But all on the debit side of mood’s ledger: nothing, no, nothing, that suggests a spring in the step, a lilt in the voice, a swelling of the manly bosom, or oceans of lucre clattering into the old bank account.
In a properly defined world, to hear that a friend is “chuffed” would elicit waves of sympathy, an arm around the shoulder, an offer of a payday loan. But ours is not a properly defined world, as I discovered by consulting (a) the OED and (b) my life’s companion, who happens to be co-begetter of this site. Perhaps my reflexive negative interpretation flows from what I do: I write novels for American trade publishers. If you wish to feel “chuffed,” in the meaning the word should have, just try doing that for 30 years!
I was my-zulled
And then there’s misled. This is a word that tormented me for close on 50 years; people couldn’t understand what I was talking about when I would declare that “So-and-so had clearly misled Such-and-such.” The incomprehension was rooted in the way I pronounced the word, which was the way I thought a word that meant what I thought misled meant ought to be pronounced. Namely, with a long “I,” as “my-zulled.” The past tense of the verb “misle,” to rhyme with sisal. I misle, thou mislest, he (she) misles – and so on. It never occurred to me that I was looking at the past tense of mislead, at a short i word that should be pronounced “miss-led.”
I mean, the latter was such a colorless, niminy-piminy verb, while my “to misle” sounded tricky, devious, sneaky, utterly in keeping with human frailty. A three-card-monte word, a term of art for the mulcting set. It took little imagination to picture Satan misling Eve into misling Adam into taking that fatal first bite. How even more immortal would have been that moment when, in Around the World in 80 Days, Phineas is admonished with respect to a pachydermal investment, “Ten thousand pounds for an elephant? You’ve been my-zulled, sir!” Much better than “diddled,” don’t you think?
When eventually the language police lured me into a dark room, set about me with rubber truncheons and American dictionaries and finally beat “misle” out of me, it was as if a brave, small flame had been extinguished. I knew I would never be quite the same again, that some infinitesimal but invaluable part of youth and innocence and ardor was gone. Forever.
And I can tell you, when I realized that, I was pretty chuffed.—MICHAEL M. THOMAS