My old low-life friend Jeffrey Bernard first made enough money to buy spirits instead of beer when he got a backstage job in 1958 on Expresso Bongo, later a hit film for Cliff Richard. Jeff was a stickler for language, becoming a fine writer before the spirits killed him, and he'd be amused by the wrath with which the mispronunciation expresso for espresso is greeted today. It is the third most ire-inducing mispronunciation there is, according to a new study of 2,000 adults, following pacifically (instead of specifically) and probly (probably, to most of us), which secured the top spots.
Indeed, it is not just words of foreign origin – like espresso – that enrage us, though I must say I'm annoyed by people pronouncing macho as though it's a Scottish surname (Macko), rather than as match-o, and chorizo as if it's the technical term for a runny nose, coryza. In fact, like accent, pronunciation might have been designed to make us feel superior to someone else.
We all wallow in ignorance. Many people find it annoying when Arctic is pronounced Artic (as if it were an articulated lorry). Yet its original form in English was artic, especially in the phrase 'pole artic'. The pronunciation without the medial -c- was long favoured by the upper classes, to which most of us do not belong.
Talking of especially, we are now told that lots of people are annoyed by the word specially, which they think is a mispronunciation of especially. It is no such thing. Specially has been in use for centuries. Chaucer, writing of pilgrims, says that "specially from every shire's end/Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wende". Engelond? That sounds like the pronunciation of England in football chants. Historically, even Wemberley as three syllables could be defended, though in truth it hasn't been pronounced like that since Shakespeare's day.
We are all talking about pronunciation (itself often mispronounced as pronounciation) today because some company came up with the wheeze of commissioning a little poll to see which mispronunciations annoy people. Since it put a prepared list of mispronounced words to respondents, we are not much the wiser from the exercise. But I suspect the motive was to get publicity. In this it succeeded, because everyone finds it fascinating.
We all have a laboratory to test theories simply by listening to those around us. And some, like gif (an animated image) are accepted into speech with the 'wrong' pronunciation (it should be jif) on the basis that the majority, who don't say it so, rules. We all think ourselves experts in speaking our own language.
Still, it comes as a surprise to hear someone saying pending under the impression that it is the same word as depending. There must be a sort of tone deafness among those who persist in saying mischievious and grievious in the face of the evidence.
Sometimes there is complete misapprehension of what words are being said. Damp squid is often used for damp squib, perhaps because squib for a firework is unfamiliar. The other day The New Yorker used hone in on instead of home in on, even though the latter was established as a figure of speech (from radio tuning) in the 1940s.''
You can get to the top still blissfully unaware of your errors. The last President Bush always said nucular instead of nuclear. I suppose it would be unkind to criticise Home Secretary Priti Patel for refusing to pronounce the -g in phrases such as "accessing benefits". She is only doing what the huntin', shootin' and fishin' set did in the 19th century, though I doubt that is her motive.
A baneful tendency is for the language to acquire so-called spelling pronunciations such as forehead (instead of rhyming it with horrid). Tortoise is very annoying as tor-toys. Medicine should be said as two syllables, med-sin, and Parliament as three (parlement) not four. Pestle should rhyme with nestle. Readers often write to The Telegraph complaining about the mispronunciation of sixth. Sixth is not the easiest combination of consonants. When Shakespeare's play was published in the first folio of 1623, it was as The first Part of Henry the Sixt. These days we feel we should say it as it is written. Even women is losing its pronunciation wimmin.
It baffles me, though, to hear haitch for aitch. It seems the majority choice in Ireland. There must be a confused idea that since the letter h- is aspirated, its name should be too. It's a kind of genteelism, like saying "Between you and I". If people bright enough to get a job on the wireless stopped saying haitch I'd shout at it less frequently.
My favourite two words almost always mispronounced are pejorative and flaccid. There is a choice with pejorative, but the nobby U-pronunciation is to stress the first syllable: PEE-jorative, as you can hear Evelyn Waugh saying in his celebrated television interview with John Freeman. With flaccid there is no leeway. Most people say flassid, but it should be flak-sid. It's the law, or would be if we British tried to control our language as the Académie Française pretends to in France.
Yet I wouldn't dream of correcting anyone who innocently got it wrong, unlike the 35 per cent of survey respondents who admitted to relishing the opportunity. It would be like sneering at their clothes. When it comes to pronunciation, we all live in glass houses.