Tag Archives: misles

awry

If even the best-laid schemes of mice and men gang aft a-gley, you can well imagine how often and how badly the chaotic gallimaufry and salmagundi that is English spelling goes awry. I’m sure you and your coworkers have often been misled onto a pronunciation sideroad. The epitome of this would be some biopic or miniseries where the heroine, on a moped, seeks out the best sundried tomatoes, and finds that infrared light works best (or perhaps her story predates that). What is needed is a kind of orthographic clerestory to let some light in, or a sewer to stitch the spelling together, or at least a blast on a conch so that you would be wary… rather than awry.

Really. Raise your hand if you thought once – perhaps for a long time – that awry was pronounced “aw-ree.” Raise the other hand if, once you realized it’s a plus wry, you thought it was just you making the mistake.

Both hands raised? Congratulations. You have now surrendered to English spelling. Join the club. Words that are often misread because their parts are misconstrued are called, by some people, misles; some years ago, some people on a forum (alt.english.usage) compiled a “misle list.”

Awry is one of the worst of the set for a few reasons: 1) we don’t often form new words with a-, and when we do we typically put a hyphen after the a; 2) aw is a common spelling pair; 3) -ry is a plausible word ending (a search on that word ending in the OED online produces “around 8800 results in 7648 entries”); 4) wry is itself a problematic word, thanks to the silent w (it was not always silent, but it’s been centuries since anyone said the w – don’t be fooled by the fact that your lips round when you say the “r”; they always do that in English with “r”). A medical condition most formally known as torticollis is also called wry neck (because your neck goes awry); “rye neck” hits in Google slightly outnumber “wry neck” hits (though many of them are for a place in New Jersey called Rye Neck).

Wry, anyway, is a very old English word; its earliest form was a verb for moving, going, or turning (it may be related to wriggle), and then for going astray or turning aside. From that it came to be an adjective and adverb meaning ‘twisted, contorted, distorted, deflected, etc.’ Its modern-day use relates mainly to the attitude conveyed by a wry smile, and I must confess I find wry humour exceedingly appealing. But give it the a- that shows up in aright, awrong, ahead, aside, and so on, and you have a similar kind of adjective and adverb.

So it makes sense, historically. But because our pronunciation has changed while our spelling has persisted, it catches the unwary. Aw, such is always the story. English spelling is as it is because people are greedy, lazy snobs. Best to make a wry smile, say “Tha’s a’righ’,” and move on to the next turn.

Thanks to @TheLingSpace for mentioning this word.

misle

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.