Occlusive Discomfort: Why We Mispronounce “Lackadaisical”

“I don’t need to worry about getting that report in on time; my boss is very laxadaisical about deadlines.” This fun and whimsical word suffers a beating most every time someone wishes to express how so-and-so maintains a cool, measured, or flippant attitude. Why do we have such a difficult time pronouncing a word we are so fond of?

Part of the problem is the association we have between the words lackadaisical and lax.  Given the slight overlap in connotation – both terms implying a casual, comfortable approach – we tend to meld the two into one. In fact, these terms originate from different sources: lax, which finds echoes in the words laxative and relaxation, stems from the Latin laxus, meaning “wide, loose, open”, whereas lackadaisical grew out of the word lackaday, itself a shortened form of the phrase “alack the day.”  Its root is the Proto-Germanic laka, implying an absence or deficiency, as manifested in the modern “lack.”

Another piece of the puzzle is phonological in nature. Lackadaisical features an occlusive – an abrupt stop of airflow in the vocal tract required for producing sounds like /b/, /d/, /g/, /p/, /t/, and /k/. In the case of lackadaisical, an occlusive is embedded between two vowels, requiring the speaker to hurriedly switch between a completely closed and a completely open vocal tract. This inconvenient modulation may compel us to choose the path of least resistance and tack on a sibilant “s” sound where it does not belong.

Finally, the tendency to invert adjacent consonants takes place across the English language. In a Michigan Radio broadcast from 2012, English professor Anne Curzan offered the explanation that letter swapping – especially between “s” and “x” – is common in English, offering the ubiquitous examples of “espresso” versus “expresso” and “ask” versus “ax”. Dr. Curzan went on to explain that we may be hasty in disparaging those who invert the “s” and “k” of “ask”, given that “ax” preceded “ask” and was considered high form until the 16th century. Given the fluid and pliable nature of words – the functional ways in which language evolves to best serve our needs – future generations may slough off the more cumbersome bits of English. Until then, lackadaisical continues to provide us with a verbal workout.

Photo Credit: Lovelorn Poets