Listen to this story



Past Is Prologue

The Most Mispronounced Word in the World

And how to undo decades of linguistic carnage

Photo by Nathaniel Shuman on Unsplash

Knowing or learning another language can be both a blessing and a curse. Don’t get me wrong — I think everyone should learn a foreign language, simply for the way it expands and enhances our perspective on the world, so don’t use the “curse” part as an excuse to avoid the challenge. Nevertheless, let me explain.

Trash talk at this LA bistro is apparently de rigueur. Photos courtesy of author.

Let’s start with the blessings, of which there are many. Sometimes it lets you in on an inside joke, such as the one in the film Grosse Pointe Blank, in which the French hit man (played by Benny Urquidez) sent to kill Martin Blank (John Cusack) is named Felix La Poubelle. In French, la poubelle means trash can, so the inside joke is that the hit man is basically Eurotrash.

Other times it simply lets you understand the meaning of things that others can only memorize blindly. I took four years of Latin in high school, which might seem absurdly bookish or impractical, but when you hit law school and realize just how many Latin terms and phrases are still in frequent use in the legal world, knowing Latin turns out to be one of the greatest assets ever.

Just a few of the Latin phrases you’ll need for law school.

The down side is that, over time, you become increasingly aware of — and sensitive about — proper pronunciation. For anyone who knows French, for example, hearing Texans use the word “bookoo” (rhymes with “you two,” and meaning “a lot”) is like fingernails scratching a chalkboard once you understand that it is a pejorative perversion of the French word beaucoup. (For illustration, “bookoo bucks” means that something is expensive.)

Place names are also an excruciating challenge. Hawai’i, for example, is properly three syllables, not two, and that little apostrophe is a glottal stop representing a suppressed k (which is why the word aliki, which means “(hereditary) noble” in Tuvalu, is ali’i in Hawai’ian). So no, Hawai’i doesn’t rhyme with “a sigh,” but rather with a “a psych key.” Conversely — and this one genuinely drives me nuts — the Japanese city of Kyoto is two syllables, not three, and every time I hear someone refer to something like the Kyoto Protocol, pronouncing Kyoto like it rhymes with “the oh toe,” well, it pretty much takes half a bottle of sake just to calm my nerves.

Beautiful Kyoto: lots of sights but still only two syllables.

Speaking of sake, the last syllable of that word rhymes with “kay,” not “key,” and the same is true of poke. Whenever I hear people say they had poke for lunch, and they pronounce it “pokey,” my first thought is one of horrified sadness — poor Gumby must be devastated.

The Campanile: I can’t “bear” to hear it mispronounced.

Along the same lines, the tall and beautiful clock tower that is at the heart of UC Berkeley’s campus is the Campanile, which is from Italian, so that last syllable should rhyme with “lay.” But Berkeley students and faculty alike keep pronouncing it as if it rhymes with “camp a kneel lee,” infuriating me to no end and leaving me no choice but to fail all of them (with the exception of one non-Italian colleague who agrees with me on the correct pronunciation). If they push a bit further in their quest for consonantal conniptions and head to the café in South Hall, which is located right next to the Campanile, and then order a non-existent drink they call “expresso” — for the love of humanity, there is no x in espresso — then I would have no other recourse than to pelt them with bologna (and if you pronounce that as “baloney,” I will be expressly compelled to douse you with espresso).

Personal names are also a mellifluous minefield for those who know proper pronunciation. On the one hand, when I had an Irish exchange student in my class named Caoimhe, she was absolutely delighted when I said her name as it should be (which incidentally is pronounced “keeva”). On the other hand, when I had a student of Indian heritage in one of my classes with the last name of Ubhayakar, he looked at me like I was a complete idiot when I pronounced it exactly as one would in India. The correct pronunciation rhymes with “ooh, buy a car.” His puzzled response to me, however, was “do you mean Ubhayakar?” (rhyming with “you baker”). As they say in Sanskrit, “wtf?”

Stop asking: it’s pronounced just like it’s spelled.

Envelope, please — and the winner is…

As you can see, there are many examples to choose from, so this was by no means an easy choice to make. But at the end of the day, there is to my mind one word that is so uniformly mispronounced all around the world that it should clearly be a linguistic crime, if not an outright human rights violation. And so without further ado, I give you the winner in the category of the most mispronounced word in the world: karaoke.

Photo by Michael Marquand/Lonely Planet Images/Getty

Ah, poor karaoke. Just seven letters in your name and yet somehow the world has managed to mangle you into a cacophonous trainwreck of twisted linguistic carnage. Somewhere out there, no doubt walking around freely and without a clue of the grievous devastation inflicted on the rest of the world, is that first miscreant who looked at that word and decided it should somehow rhyme with “carry yokey.” And then came the horror of horrors: that abominable mispronunciation spread ‘round the world, catching on and setting in for the long haul.

Look closely at that word, my friend. Do you see an i? Do you see a y? Exactly, so how the #@&% did we get “kariyokey” out of karaoke?

Let’s look more closely at the origins of this ever-so-innocent word. The word karaoke comes to us from Japanese, and consists of a compound of two separate words, one of which is ironically from English.

The kara part is simply the Japanese word for “empty” (空). Even if you don’t know Japanese, you should already know this word, because it shows up in another Japanese compound familiar in every part the world, which is karate (空手). Karate means “empty hand,” as in, “(the way of the) empty hand,” and refers to a specific martial art that is performed without any weapon in the hand, hence the empty hand. English speakers get the kara in that word correct, before devolving into insufferable oral lacerations by turning te (rhymes with “tay”) into “tea,” or more accurately, “dee.” I suppose that is at least better than pronouncing the word as if it rhymed with “grate.”

Karatedo: the way of the empty hand (do, the last kanji and pronounced like dough, means way)

The oke part of karaoke requires some explanation. Japanese speakers sometimes find foreign words, especially longer ones, difficult to pronounce using Japanese sounds, and so to make things easier, they often truncate them into shorter words or compounds. So a personal computer, for example, which in Japanese would be pasonaru konpyuta, becomes simply pasokon.

So what foreign word does oke represent? Why, it’s a word we already have in English—the word orchestra, which in Japanese would be ōkesutora (オーケストラ), which then gets truncated to oke (オケ). The meaning of karaoke is thus, “empty orchestra.”

Strictly speaking this could also be karaoke.

So if we know how to say kara, and the oke comes from English and rhymes with one of the simplest and most ubiquitous words in the English language, namely okay, I ask once again: how the #@&% did we get “kariyokey” out of karaoke? It’s enough to make me break out in emoji 😫🙄 (which incidentally is also a Japanese word (絵文字), meaning “picture character,” and which we also mispronounce because we mistakenly think it is derived from emoticon — which is itself a truncation of “emotional icon” — when in fact emoji is its own thing, with the e (絵 for “picture”) pronounced like “eh” as in, “you’re from Canada, eh?” so please get that right before you drive me mad to the point of making me write a run-on sentence which I really don’t want to do, but will, if you force my empty hand).

Sing it with Seoul: noraebang neon.

Such is the reach of this long reign of aural violence that only a few lucky countries have managed to avoid its atonal tyranny. In Korea, for example, karaoke is known as noraebang (노래방, or “song room”), mostly because, for historical reasons, Koreans don’t like to use Japanese words if they can avoid them.

And then there is the Philippines. Karaoke is arguably more popular in the Philippines than it is even in Japan, and there is good reason for this. If you go to the Philippines (and if you haven’t, you really must), you might be surprised by how many Filipinos will explain to you that Japan imported karaoke from the Philippines and not the other way around. Even more surprising is that there is considerable evidence to support that claim, including the fact that the patent for the world’s first karaoke machine is held by Roberto del Rosario, who is Filipino. You’ll still hear the word karaoke in the Philippines, or more likely “KTV” (for karaoke television), or possibly even SAS (Sing Along System), but the Filipinos embrace karaoke like no other place in the world, so pronunciation is pretty much irrelevant.

To conclude, the correct pronunciation of karaoke would rhyme with “la la” (as in “La La Land”) and “okay,” so we get “la la okay.” So from now on, when your friends invite you out for something they call “carry yokey,” correct them — it’s the only way we might reverse decades of linguistic anarchy.

Academic, film maker, and musician whose day job is teaching peace, politics, and human rights at the University of California, Berkeley.

Get the Medium app