Tag Archives: misled

Don’t be misled or go awry

My latest article for The Week is about book words – words you’ve learned from a book without learning the pronunciation. We’ve all had them, and there’s no shame in it:

Don’t be misled or go awry with ‘book words’

And here’s my companion pronunciation tip video (also embedded in the article):


Oh, yay. It’s election season. Kind of like the run-up to Christmas: too long, too expensive, too noisy, and you probably won’t like what you get on the actual day. But instead of people wanting to nuzzle us standing under mistletoe, we get people wanting to misle us to non-understanding.

Misle? Sure! Check news reports about any ad or debate: “[Candidate X] misled voters with a boutique selection of house-trained factoids…”

What’s that, you say? Misled is just a past tense of mislead? It should be said mis-led? Come, now. Have you never looked at this word and been misled by its appearance, reading it at first as though it rhymed with “wise’ll” or “thistle”? Admit it, it works: we are rained with missiles of measly, even miserly, misinformation – slim bits of truthiness from slimy politicos. If you try to fight through the pettifoggery, the mist’ll clear to a fine drizzle… they’ll be telling you it’s raining, but really they’ll be micturating and hoping you’ll be too befuddled to figure it out.

It happens that there is a verb misle – in fact, there are two different verbs misle. In both cases it’s an archaic alternative spelling for mizzle. The first verb mizzle means ‘drizzle; rain in fine droplets’. The second verb mizzle – apparently unrelated – means (to quote Oxford) “to confuse, muddle, mystify; to intoxicate, befuddle.” And this one has a minor history of relation to mislead, as we see in two quotes that Oxford has given us. Bishop W. Barlow, in 1601, wrote “They were by their owne ignorance mizeled, or by their blind guides miss-led.” And in 1999, an author in The Scotsman wrote “Do not be mizzled, I mean misled, by their propaganda.”

So it’s an agreeable, even plausible, form; it has echoes and overtones of relatable imagery; it has historical associations and attestations. It is, we may say, a truthy word. And, more to the point, it’s perfectly cromulent. We can, by the power vested in us as users of the language, decide it should be a verb, and start to use it as one, and it will be so. It won’t change its past – a word’s history isn’t just whatever you decide it should be, although many people seem to think so – but it will change its present and future.

It’s sort of like an election. But there are differences. If someone misles you – if you are misled by them, I mean – on matters such as balance sheets and scientific fact, voting for them on the basis of their version of the truth will not make that version instantly true. Language can shift according to the decisions of users, because it exists by common agreement in our minds, but the hard cold world of external reality will not smile on those who misle.

Addendum: It turns out that misle is also used as the name for words that are commonly, spontaneously, persistently misread. See Misle list 2002 for a list.