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From SZA to Kilauea, words that described 2023 were often mispronounced

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Some of the words tied to this year’s hottest topics were also among the most mangled when it came to saying them aloud, with stumpers ranging from the first name of “Oppenheimer” star Cillian Murphy to the singer SZA to the name of a sacred slab of sandstone used in the coronation of King Charles III.

This year’s lists of the most mispronounced words in the U.S. and Britain were released Thursday by the online language learning company Babbel, which commissions The Closed Captioning Group in the U.S. and the British Institute of Verbatim Reports in the U.K. to identify the top words that news anchors, politicians and other public figures have struggled with.

Going through the lists provides a bit of a year-end review that ranges from scientific discoveries to entertainment to politics. Babbel teacher Malcolm Massey said the diversity of the words struck him, with words coming from several different language.

“I think a lot of it is due to how close our cultures have become because of how globalized things are,” Massey said.

SZA, who leads in nominations for the upcoming Grammys and whose “Kill Bill” was the second most-streamed song on Spotify this year, made the U.S. list. Her name is pronounced SIZ-uh, according to the experts at Babbel, who say the first name of another entertainer on the list, the Irish actor who starred in this summer’s hit as physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, is pronounced KI-lee-uhn.

Other pronunciations making the U.S. list include:

— The name of biotech entrepreneur and Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, pronounced Vih-VAKE Rah-mah-SWAH-me.

— Two volcanos — Mexico’s Popocatepetl, pronounced Poh-poh-kah-TEH-peh-til, and Hawaii’s Kilauea, pronounced Kee-lou-EY-uh.

— The late Karl Lagerfeld’s cat, Choupette, pronounced SHOO-pet, who garnered headlines as the Met Gala honored the late Chanel designer.

The coronation of King Charles in May helped put the Stone of Scone, pronounced Stown uhv Skoon, on Britian’s list, and get an honorable mention on the U.S. list. The sacred slab on which ancient Scottish kings were crowned was beneath the seat of the Coronation Chair when the crown was placed on Charles’ head.

Other pronunciations on the U.K. list include:

— The word padam, pronounced PAD-dahm, which comes from Kylie Minogue’s summertime hit “Padam Padam,” which refers to the sound of a heartbeat.

— Bharat, pronounced BUH-ruht, an ancient Sanskirt word that means India in Hindi. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government this fall has signaled that Indians should shed the name India and instead use its other official name Bharat.

The words listed show the topics people focused on enough over the last year “to really have something to say about it,” said Kristie Denlinger, a lecturer in the linguistics department at the University of Texas in Austin. She said being exposed to an unfamiliar word enough can eventually help someone master it.

“Anything that is kind of different from what a speaker is used to, they can learn how to pronounce things in different ways than what they’re used to, it just takes more exposure,” Denlinger said.

Massey said that as one learns a new pronunciation, it’s important to “not stress perfection but progress over time, so practicing these words again and again.”

In some cases, the correct pronunciation is in the eye of the beholder. Earning a place on the U.S. list was the last name of Travis Kelce, the Kansas City Chiefs’ tight end whose relationship with Taylor Swift has grabbed countless headlines this fall. Whether Kelce should be pronounced with one or two syllables, Kels or KEL-See, has been a topic of discussion even in his own family.

Both the four-time All-Pro tight end and his brother, Philadelphia Eagles center Jason Kelce, pronounce their last name as KEL-see. On an episode of their “New Heights” podcast, they discussed with their father, Ed Kelce, how that pronunciation came to be.

“I got tired of correcting people,” said Ed Kelce, who said that his co-workers always called him KEL-see.

Jason Kelce then asks: “Should we go by Kels or KEL-see?” His father replies: “Do whatever you want, I did.”

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