Have you ever seen a word and had no idea how to say it? Or worse, thought you knew how to pronounce something only to find out you’ve been saying it wrong?
Learning correct pronunciation is hard in any language, but it’s especially challenging in a language like English that’s full of exceptions and contradictions—take “tough” and “though,” for example. There are many English words foreigners can’t say!
From those just learning English to the most well-read native speakers, anyone can have trouble figuring out how to pronounce certain words properly.
So, what is the hardest word to pronounce in the English language?
Let’s take a look!
What it means: A soft-bodied, brightly colored sea animal that resembles a plant and sticks to a rock; also a type of garden plant
We wouldn’t blame you if you thought “anemone” was pronounced “AN-uh-moan” or “an-uh-MOAN,” due to the fact that it’s quite uncommon for a single “e” to be pronounced at the end of an English word. But the mighty anemone doesn’t play by those rules!
When I was at the beach, I saw a bright pink sea anemone trapping small fish.
What it means: A symbol in printed text resembling a star (*)
A lot of people think this word is pronounced “asterix”—that might be because of the comic book character Astérix. But don’t get it twisted: The keyboard symbol has nothing to do with the comic strip hero.
The writer put an asterisk beside the title of her report to call the readers’ attention to a note at the bottom of the page.
What it means: A high-ranking officer in the military
It might be pretty obvious why this word is often pronounced incorrectly—just look at it! Going by its arrangement of consonants and vowels, you’d think that it has three syllables. But nope! The English exception rears its ugly head. This word is pronounced in the same way as those little seeds you use to make popcorn.
The colonel retired after 30 years of service in the army.
What it means: The feeling of being relaxed and having no discomfort or pain
If you split this word into two parts, you get “comfort” and “able.” Since each of those words has two syllables, then the word “comfortable” should have four, right? Well, no. It’s actually pronounced as a three-syllable word. The middle “o” might as well not even be there!
When I have guests, I like to make them comfortable by offering soft towels and luxurious bedding.
What it means: The act of calling something worthless
No list of difficult English words to pronounce would be complete without this one! “Floccinaucinihilipilification” is one of those words people use to show off their impressive vocabulary; it has the distinction of being the longest non-technical, non-medical word in English. When you first see it, you might assume its pronunciation is—ha ha, just kidding! This one is a bit too long for most people to simply sound out.
My brother’s floccinaucinihilipilification of my rare coin collection made me really mad. They’re actually very valuable!
What it means: A narrow piece of land connecting two larger pieces
Is-th-mus? Ith-mus? Trying to pronounce the “th” in the middle of this word probably makes you feel like you have rocks in your mouth. Luckily, you don’t have to, because the “th” is silent! Why is it there, then? Don’t ask us!
A 400-mile isthmus known as the Isthmus of Panama connects the countries of Costa Rica and Colombia.
What it means: Playfully causing minor trouble
The funny thing about this word is that it’s mispronounced for no good reason. For some reason, it’s common for people to add an extra syllable so that it sounds like “mis-CHEEV-ee-uhs.” That second “ee” sound has no place in this word.
“I didn’t take any cookies,” said the little girl with a mischievous grin.
What it means: A doctor who specializes in the treatment of the ear, nose and throat
Clocking in at 21 letters, this word is certainly a tongue twister. With a word this long, it’s always challenging to figure out which syllable to emphasize. Maybe it’s just us, but wouldn’t it be simpler to say “ear, nose and throat doctor”?
My mother is an otorhinolaryngologist at the new hospital downtown.
What it means: The number six in a sequence
Unfortunately, this isn’t one of those words where some letters are silent. You have to pronounce the “x” and “th” sounds consecutively, which can really trip a person up—especially if “sixth” comes before another word that begins with an “s” sound (“the sixth song,” for instance).
When I was in the sixth grade, I won the school talent show.
What it means: A figure of speech in which a part is substituted for the whole
Since it contains a “ch,” it wouldn’t be unreasonable to think this word should be pronounced “sin-ek-DOCH” or something similar. Instead, the “ch” makes a “k” sound and, just as in “anemone,” it ends with a long “e” sound.
A common synecdoche is “wheels” when referring to a car.
What it means: A tart, savory sauce typically used with meats; also, a county in England
How many syllables do you count in this word? Four? Sorry, try again! While there’s actually more than one way to say it, “Worcestershire” is typically pronounced with only three syllables. And forget that “er” sound in the middle—it might as well not even be there!
The secret to my famous beef stew is to add a few tablespoons of Worcestershire sauce.
What do you think is the hardest word to pronounce?
As we’ve seen, there are many hard-to-pronounce words in English. Some have sounds that are nearly impossible to get your tongue around, while others just don’t seem to make sense. The good news is that if you can learn these words, you can probably conquer any English word!
Are there any words we missed? What would top your list of hard words to say in English?
Andrea is a Canadian freelance writer and editor specializing in English, e-learning, EdTech, and SaaS. She has a background as an ESL teacher in beautiful Vancouver, British Columbia. In her free time, Andrea loves hanging out with her husband and son, creating recipes in the kitchen, and reading fiction. She also loves camping and jumping into lakes whenever possible. Learn more about Andrea on LinkedIn or check out her website.