For some reason memories of various faux pas linger even though they (mostly) happened a long time ago. I’m sure I haven’t had more than my fair share of embarrassing situations but something must explain why, years later, I can recall them so vividly.

Many of my faux pas are to do with mispronunciations. This dates from my schooldays at a minor public school back in the 50’s.  I had just fulfilled an ambition and become a school prefect (we called them praepositors!).  This high office came with certain privileges such as being allowed to have your trouser pockets open (everyone else had to have them sewn up), wearing a grey instead of a black tie, and wearing a waist length gown.  Prefects also took it in turns to read a Latin grace from a small balcony before and after meals in the dining hall and to read lessons at school assemblies in the chapel.

Services in the chapel were formal occasions and lessons were read from a large lectern – a brass eagle – on the steps between the nave and the chancel.  Naturally I rehearsed my first lesson very carefully, but only on my own without the advantages of any feedback. Unfortunately my lesson had the word subtle in it, not just once, but three times.  I read my lesson with considerable verve but inevitably mispronounced subtle and read it with an emphasis on the b. I was conscious of some tittering but didn’t know why.  On the way out of chapel the headmaster admonished me and broke the devastating news that the b was silent.

Years later the perils of mispronounced words continued to haunt me.  There was the time when I delivered a paper at a meeting of the British Psychological Society.  In those days psychologists rarely spoke about people, being far more interested in rats in mazes.  Instead of using the word people, psychologists usually referred them as organisms.  Foolishly I decided to impress my audience with my professionalism and included a sprinkling of organisms in my paper.  As you can probably guess, when I delivered my paper (which I read of course, just like a proper academic!) organism became orgasm.  Interestingly, no one appeared to notice.

On another occasion I committed a similar faux pas while giving my parents a guided tour round a house and garden we had just acquired. The tour of the house went without mishap. The well stocked garden proved my downfall. It had a fruit and vegetable garden, a peach tree in the greenhouse, a number of half-moon shaped rose beds and a path, complete with a rose arbour, that ran the length of the main lawn.  It was early summer and there was a profusion of flowers – very few of which I could name.  A large clematis, in full bloom, cascaded over the front porch.  As we approached I said ‘Just look at that magnificent clitoris’.  My parents, just like the psychologists, didn’t react – perhaps to spare my blushes or because they thought a clitoris was a special kind of clematis.

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