Wait, what?

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One of the joys of being on my small community’s selectboard is that you never know what the next meeting is going to bring. Buy 440 cubic yards of gravel? No problem. The ATV club wants permission to operate four-wheelers on North Street? Sure, we’ll consider that. Property tax rates, counting votes, painting the cemetery sign, we got it all covered.

And right now, we’re looking to hire a maintenance worker for our highway crew. (Applications close Monday 8/15, get your materials in soon… Come on, you think you’re getting a faculty job? Get ready to be a plow truck driver.) And one of the applicants, under the kind of equipment he knew how to operate, included the fact that he could run a backo.

backhoeI love that. A backhoe (this thing on the right, sometimes called a bucket loader, depending on which end you’re looking at) is the ubiquitous piece of light construction equipment that every town and every landscape contractor and every utility company owns. And when you say it on a Vermont jobsite, it totally sounds like “backo.”


I work with a lot of faculty on writing instruction, and invariably someone will complain about how badly their students spell. And I always try to explain that our students have grown up with auditory media, with TV and YouTube and text spelling, and they just don’t have as much experience as we do in looking at words on a page. Whereas I have read millions and millions of words that I can define and spell but can’t pronounce.

This is the fate of the self-raised scholar (excuse me, the autodidact). We are perpetual prodigies, overachievers, always playing above our level and always knowing we could be caught out as impostors at any moment. And one of the traps we’ll catch ourselves in is mispronouncing some word in a way that labels us as rubes. We’ve read it, we know it, but we don’t hang out with people who use it in conversation, and so we may never have heard it.

So here’s a quick pronunciation quiz. Don’t look at the bottom, play it fair, and see if you’re fit for the faculty lounge.

ITEM A: The word “hegemony” is pronounced:

  1. HEDGE-a-money
  2. HEGG-a-money
  3. huh-GEM-uh-knee

ITEM B: Your college’s president is throwing a “gala.” Does that most closely rhyme with:

  1. paila? (as in, “We’re gonna need another paila joint compound up here, Larry!”)
  2. holla? (as in, “Yo, Larry, holla back when you get this!”)
  3. palla? (as in, “Yeah, Larry’s an old palla mine from way back.”)

ITEM C: Someone writes that your research is “sui generis.” When you read that to your dissertation chair, you pronounce it:

  1. swee generous
  2. soo-eye gun-AIR-is
  3. soo-ee je-NAIR-is
  4. soo-eye generous

Scoring: The last answer in each list is preferred. If you didn’t get three for three, we have an opening on the road crew. (An extra point if you know that different syllables are emphasized in hegemony and hegemonic.)