I know of dozens of examples, from friends and blogs, of words people learned by reading them without ever hearing them pronounced. (In fact, Steve at languagehat recently posted on pace, which seems to be in that category for lots of people, including me.) Those are fun, but there aren’t usually any surprises in those stories; almost nobody, f’rinstance, gets a proper mental pronunciation of “respite” or “reprise” right off the bat.
The stories that I find more interesting are the ones about where people learned things in the first place. I’ve realized, over the course of nine years now of telling Eric, “Oh, this movie is where I learned who that person is” and “The first time I ever heard that word was in this song,” that pop culture planted a lot of flags in my brain. I’ve got huge tracts of (mental) land that were first plowed by really just the unlikeliest developers. A sampling:
Lots of my pretty meager tropical geography comes courtesy of the Beach Boysâ€”I don’t think I was familiar with name of a single place mentioned in “Kokomo” before the song hit the radio. I take that back: I knew of Jamaica.
Madeleine L’Engle (RIP) taught me about tesseracts and mitochondria (although I was disappointed to learn that real mitochondria are not in fact little mouse-things that grow into bigger little tree-things).
I learned quite a lot from the Bangles: the word “manic,” the facts that the Soviet government was based in a building called the Kremlin and that Japanese money is called yen, and the trope that policemen eat lots of doughnuts while they’re on duty.
And of course, it’s thanks to The Golden Girls that I know what a confidant is.