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Book Titles That Get Mispronounced: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

April 12, 2015
Maybe I should have listened to the audio.

Maybe I should have listened to the audio.

Before reading a novel, it’s good to know how to pronounce the title. That can be a problem with Les Miserables by Victor Hugo.  If you don’t know French, it’s easy to mispronounce the title as “Less Miserables.” For example:

I am “less miserable” than that guy over there trying to read Les Miserables.

You sound kind of silly if you mispronounce Les Miserables as “Less Miserable” in front of educated readers.  I should know.  I mispronounced Les Miserables in college in front of a bunch of other students in my ________Literature class almost 30 years ago.  I don’t remember how or why, but I remember mispronouncing it.  It shouldn’t have been a big deal.   Back then, Les was a common name.  I knew a couple guys named Les, and there was even a character named Les on a popular television show.  There was every logical reason to believe that the Les in Les Miserables was pronounced “less.”  Except for that French language thing, I guess.

It didn’t end there.  In college, I also pronounced Jean Valjean as “Gene Val-Gene”.”  I’m pretty sure I’m not the first person to ever do that, but my literary friends looked at me with such contempt that I had to find new literary friends.  It’s not easy to find new literary friends when the old ones keep telling everybody that you mispronounced Les Miserables and Jean Valjean.  I know a book has it in for me when I mispronounce the title and a main character.  At least I knew how to pronounce “Cosette.”

If I’m mispronouncing “Cosette,” nobody has told me yet.

I really wish this had come with an audio.

I really wish this had come with an audio.

Despite my own linguistic issues, Les Miserables should be one of the best classics ever.  It has a great story, a great protagonist, a great antagonist (kind of).  I know this because I read the Classic Comics version over and over again as a kid.  Les Miserables was probably my second favorite Classic Comics book, surpassed only by The Three Musketeers.  The Les Miserables comic book was so great that I was going to read the novel on my own in junior high right after I had finished The Three Musketeers, a novel which was pretty readable for a 7th grader.

When I found Les Miserables at the used book store, I was horrified.  It was much longer than The Three Musketeers.  That was okay, I told myself.  I was accustomed to walking around with huge books at school.  I took pride in walking around with huge books at school.  When I carried Shogun by James Clavell, I had been the boy with the biggest book in school.

“Biggest book in the whole school” is not a euphemism.  I was actually proud that I literally carried the biggest book.  Looking back, I probably should have been beaten up.

Even though I didn’t read Les Miserables, I should have talked about it to somebody.  If I had talked about Les Miserables to one of my junior high teachers or to a book store clerk, I might have learned how to pronounce it correctly.  Everybody will forgive a kid who mispronounces Les Miserables.  At least the dumb kid who mispronounces it is trying.  But a college guy majoring in English (for a while)?  It’s humiliating!

It was so bad that I considered reading Les Miserables, actually reading it, the unabridged version.  Reading it word-for-word would redeem me for mispronouncing it as an adult.  Yes, it’s been almost 30 years since I mispronounced Les Miserables.  I blocked out the memory for a while, but it’s coming back, gnawing at me.  Maybe if I read it, the memory of mispronouncing it will go away.  Reading Les Miserables outweighs mispronouncing it.  I’m pretty sure that’s how it works.

*****

Every once in a while, I get a little cocky and start thinking that I’m smarter than I really am.  I write a sentence that people think is clever, or I solve a problem that has been bugging me for a while.  This week, I solved a major problem at work, and co-workers praised me, suggesting that I could be the next boss.  They weren’t even being sarcastic.  For a quiet guy, that kind of attention doesn’t happen often.  I started daydreaming about promotions, raises, new projects, and then…

I remembered that I mispronounced Les Miserables when I was in college.

Stuff like that really ticks me off.

*****

Would reading Les Miserables redeem me for mispronouncing it?  What is the statute of limitations for mispronouncing the title of a classic novel?  Have you ever mispronounced a book title or character’s name?  What astonishing gap have you discovered in your own knowledge?  What mistake do you keep beating yourself up over?

*****

 

Everybody knows how to pronounce the word “crap,” but most people don’t quite know what it means.

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43 Comments
  1. This is a great post! It made me laugh because I’ve made all kinds of errors over the years (I was also an English Major!) and I remember the looks I got. I have never read Les Miserables and I never saw it on Broadway. I still remember a guy at work, telling me I had to go see “Les Miz.” He was too busy to say the whole title, or maybe he was just unsure how to pronounce the rest!

    • Ha ha! “Les Miz” is either cool or a cop-out. I’m not sure which.

      How did the guy at work pronounce “Les”?

      • Haha! He was trying to be cool but was not! He pronounced “Les” correctly (lay), so I’ll give him credit for that, but nothing else!

  2. kalliana88 permalink

    Reblogged this on kalliana88 and commented:
    I think both ways (English and French) are beautiful. I never worried about pronunciations, but it matter’s how you understand the story. Like we all know, it’s a great story.

  3. I’m afraid reading it won’t redeem you, sir. It would have been okay if only you had known it wasn’t pronounced like it was spelled. Not knowing how to pronounce it is understandable. That is not the crime. The crime is not knowing that it isn’t pronounced like it’s spelled. That’s why everyone calls it Le Mizz, you see. Most people don’t really know how to pronounce it, they just know it’s not pronounced like it’s spelled.

  4. Dave permalink

    That book is so much Less Miserable when you pronounce the name correctly!

  5. I am miserable no matter how you pronounce it.. lol

  6. Very funny topic!

  7. ramonawray permalink

    Really good post, lol 🙂 Yes, I’m pretty sure than reading the book has washed away your sin 😀 It’s quite a feat – well done!

  8. So, you reckon reading Les Miserable would act as a sort of literary exorcism? Nice idea, worth a try
    There’s such a stack of ‘classic’ books and genius authors I haven’t read, their ghosts hang over me like papery shadows, threatening to batter me round the head for my ignorance.
    Hemmingway, Virginia Wolf, J.D. Salinger, Philip Roth…. Just soooooo many that I’ve kind of never really been drawn to but that I know I SHOULD read.
    Will I be damned to literary hell for my wilful ignorance?

    • That’s a lot of authors to feel that you SHOULD read. Maybe it would help to start one book from each of those authors, read a few pages, and even if you never finish them, you can still say that you’re in the process of reading them.

      I don’t think you can be damned to literary hell if you’re in the process (as long as it might take) of reading the books.

      • Ah, great idea. Though I run the risk of being in the process of reading them for the rest of my life… Too many books, not enough hours in the day 🙂

  9. titaniahudson permalink

    Guess not many would know how this word is actually pronounced. You can’t read it in the literal manner.

  10. I do not think people who mispronounce words they only ever read are dumb, it just means they read them first before learning how to verbally use them. I mispronounced facade up until college. Nobody ever corrected me until then. It is funny how that works.

    I liked your post a lot :). Thank you for sharing your ideas.

    • Subtle. I thought you pronounced the ‘b’ just for that reason. Then later on, I though ‘suttle’ was a different word. Duh!

      • I didn’t know how to pronounce “faux” until a few years ago. Luckily, my co-workers thought I was kidding. I don’t think I could have handled being shamed again.

  11. Alex Hurst permalink

    I was waiting for you to tell me how to pronounce it so I wouldn’t suffer the same fate, haha. XD

    • I haven’t practiced it enough to feel comfortable pronouncing it in public yet, but it’s phonetically something like “Lay Mizz Err mumble… cough…. hack… excuse me, something got stuck in my throat.”

      • Alex Hurst permalink

        My gf, who has a tenuous understanding of French, just pronounced it similarly. XD But I asked her to say it again…

        Lay Mi-zer-ah-ble. So there you go… XD

  12. Reblogged this on wmasuncion.

  13. Living in a non-english speaking country, I mispronounce words in daily basis. My origin and early days of learning don’t allow me to speak words with three consonants after each other properly. Though I’m here twice longer than where I came from, my accent stubbornly stays with me and refuses to depart no matter what.

    People often think I’m more intelligent than I find myself I am and feel a fraud when I hear compliments.

    If I will succumb to the urge of beating myself up over certain things, I will be nothing but a pulp by now. I do it mentally though. Quite often.

  14. I took French in high school, and my teacher told me that my Brooklyn/French accent was very, very bad. So, I assume I often mangle the title of this book. 🙂

  15. Thanks for the post, it made me laugh. I’ve mispronounced some truly unforgivable things in my life though the specifics escape me at the moment. Counter question…Have you ever mispronounced something you already knew how to say? (For Example!) Many many years ago I looked at a pack of cigarettes and said (completely seriously) “What is un-dru-dge?” and my car companion at the time stared at me in disbelief and said “That says under age”. I think I didn’t say a single word for at least 30 minutes while my brain tried frantically to recover from such a catastrophic misfire.

  16. Don’t feel so bad, we’ve all mispronounced Les Mis before, which is why it’s been shortened! I’m fairly certain that I’ve mispronounced my own name before.. It’s nerves! I often get glared at for mispronouncing the name of towns too.. Really, who cares! They know what I meant…

  17. Don’t bother if you don’t feel the urge. It’s too long to waste your time. I feel like an idiot when I say the name correctly. It’s so pretentious.

  18. InstaScribe permalink

    My husband needs to see this. Problem is he keeps mispronouncing it, while claiming that it is one of the best books he has ever read 😦

    – Jaya

  19. Love this!
    We didn’t read Les Miserables in any of my courses, but we did read Antigone, which a student pronounced “Anti-gone.” I didn’t understand why everyone was laughing at first, since I’d been mentally pronouncing it the same way… what a lucky break to have not been called on first!

    • I thought everybody called it “Anti-gone” at first. I remember my class laughed when my teacher pronounced it the correct way because we thought she was kidding (or that the pronunciation was absurd).

  20. originalbeardoil permalink

    Never read it since I couldn’t pronounce the title. lol. I did enjoy the movie though!

    • It’s great now that we can order movies or stream them without having to pronounce them first. In the old days when you HAD to go to a theater to see a movie, we would have had to pronounce “Les Miserable” when ordering the ticket. I don’t know if I could have handled the stress.

  21. 미아 permalink

    Reblogged this on 미아삼거리오피↙girlie↗밤전풀싸롱 and commented:
    GOOD!

  22. Don’t worry, here in my country (Germany) we have the same problem when it comes to English titles or names. Like, you in your office may use Excel and Access, but for the average German, it’s Accel and Excess.

  23. I’m a science major, so maybe I can be forgiven for mispronouncing it. But is the Les part pronounced La or Lay? I should probably know this too 😦

  24. Hey. You gotta read the unabridged. I read an abridged in high school. Not bad. But the unabridged is a knockout, worth the time. All the movies, not that musical!, are great. Claude Lelouche’s Les Miserables is wonderful. Good luck and don’t worry about the French pronunciation, Lester.

  25. LOL this is so true! My 12 year old wanted to get this book from the library. He, the library attendant and I all pronounced the title differently, anyone listening would have thought we were talking about three different books. Well the library did not have it at the time, but could it be that none of us knew which book we wanted!!

  26. On a similar note, what really gets me is I’ve heard Sartre pronounced differently…by philosophy profs. I’m still afraid to refer to him in public.

  27. Unless you have done something significantly worse in the meantime, I would not force you to read it. I did not find the story (very good) worth the number of words (very many). Just my opinion.

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