True Tales of Unbelievable Social Awkwardness: Ambidextrous Nuclear Malapropisms


I hate when someone mispronounces a word. It has been one of my pet peeves since childhood. My grandmother recently told me that when I was about five my great-aunt complained that I corrected her as she read a book aloud.

“I don’t like that kid. She kept tellin’ me I was readin’ wrong!”

Based on my memories of my great-aunt and her thick Oklahoma accent, I’m sure this was not an isolated incident. One might also think that once I was old enough to know better I would have stopped correcting adults on their pronunciation.


I choose to ignore most common mispronounced words for the sake of acquaintances’ feelings (Cavalry… sherbet… Worcestershire… espresso…), but some I simply must correct. For example: nuclear. It is nu-KLEE-er, not nuke-EW-ler. Stop putting u’s where they don’t belong! You’d be surprised at the people who consistently get this wrong. One of my high school science teachers was one of those people.

My teacher mispronounced a lot of words, especially chemistry terms, which had me fit to be tied since she was, you know, teaching chemistry. The first mistake was Unnillenium, now known as Meitnerium. She left out the third syllable, but I decided it was an obscure word that I wouldn’t have to hear often and ignored it. Throughout the semester I would raise an eyebrow at yet another word she said wrong and go back to taking notes. I recall writing pairs of rolling eyes in the margins of my notes every few lines.

(If you’re thinking that High School Me was a bit of a smart aleck, you don’t know the half of it.)

When we started talking about atoms and protons and neutrons and “nuke-ew-lar” science, I couldn’t ignore it. Over and over, she said it wrong. By the fifth or sixth time, I was about to throw something at her. I shifted uncomfortably in my seat and tried to focus on taking notes. I told myself it wasn’t a big deal. Just a word.

She said it again.

“It’s ‘nu-KLEE-er!'” I interrupted loudly. And I panicked. I clamped my mouth shut and pretended to be furiously scribbling notes as my teacher whirled around to see who corrected her. I sat in front, so I had nowhere to hide. She surveyed the room with a gimlet eye.

“Who said that?”

Miracle of miracles, no one ratted me out. There was an uncomfortable silence for several seconds before she went back to her lecture. I noticed she didn’t say “nuclear” again for the rest of the morning. I chalked that up as a victory for dictionaries everywhere.

Fast forward five years to my second semester of college in Mr. E’s class. We were discussing handedness as a part of child development, and he asked us to indicate whether we were right-handed, left-handed, or… am-bid-dex-TREE-us. He added a syllable. And there it sat, like a burr under a saddle. He repeated the word several times. I stared at my notes, determined to have self-control this time and not–

“It’s am-bi-dex-TRUSS!” I interrupted him. I clamped my mouth shut and stared at the floor. Mr. E looked straight at me because I was still that student in the front row.

“Did you just correct my pronunciation?”

“Yes, sir, I did.”

(Some free advice: Honesty is the best policy when you’ve said something awkward and possibly rude. It throws people off balance so they get confused instead of mad. Just a helpful hint if you do this kind of thing regularly.)

“What did I get wrong?”

“It’s ambidextrous. There’s no I.” Someone behind me snorted with laughter.

“There is an ‘i’ in ambidextrous.”

“But not where you put it.”

The whole class was giggling at our exchange by this point, and I could feel my face was bright red.

“I said ambidextrous, didn’t I?”

“No. You said ‘am-bi-dex-TREE-us.'”

“No, I didn’t. Did I?”

“Yes,” I said as a few other students nodded in reluctant agreement. “That’s why I corrected it.” I realized how rude that sounded and added a quick “sorry” at the end. The giggling continued, and Mr. E. rolled his eyes.

“Thanks a lot, Grammar Girl,” he said and finished his lecture, thick with sarcasm, but without further interruption. I was lucky Mr. E had a good sense of humor.

However, for the rest of the semester, he would occasionally pause after saying a long or complicated word and look at me.

“Hold on, let me check the dictionary: Laura, was that right?”

All that to say if I ever mispronounce a word when my husband is within earshot you can be sure he takes great delight in teasing me about it for the next twelve years.

But can we all please stop saying “nuke-ew-lar?” Pretty please?


True Tales of Unbelievable Social Awkwardness: I Don’t Do Mornings


I am a notorious night owl. I put the night security guards to shame in college, regularly staying up until 3 on school nights and pulling all-nighters at least twice a semester. I felt (and still feel) most awake from about six in the evening until midnight or 1am. But all those late nights meant I was a zombie first thing in the morning.

I know most of you are thinking, “Oh, that’s me before coffee.” Hold that thought.

When I enrolled for my first semester of college, I found myself stuck taking philosophy at 8am because it was the only section that fit my schedule. (Exactly who is a philosopher at 8 in the morning, I’d like to know? Crazy people and academics, that’s who.) I figured it was one semester. I could do it. I totally could! Right?

As I suspected, it was terrible idea. The class is a black hole in my memory. I have legible notes as evidence that I did indeed listen to the lecture, but I don’t remember a single day of class. I wasn’t about to change my night owl ways, so I looked for every possible way to sleep in until the last second. About two weeks in I discovered that if I ran my hardest, I could get from my dorm room to the classroom in less than five minutes. I also discovered that the clock in the classroom was slightly slow, and my clock was slightly fast. This meant that if I left my dorm room at 7:55, I would get to philosophy class with roughly one minute to spare. Even better, the professor kept the lights off most of class so we could see his notes on the projector, so I started coming to class in my pajama pants. Anything to give me ten more seconds with my pillow. I still don’t remember a single moment of class.

What I do remember is braiding my hair while running out the door at 7:56 and nearly wiping out on the stairs and choking myself with my own braid in a desperate frenzy to get to class because while other people would simply skip and get notes from a classmate, I believed perfect attendance was next to godliness. Still think this is you before coffee?

The professor taught two sections of the course, and he gave us a choice of taking our final with either group. The final was later in the day, so I was actually awake when I arrived. I walked into the bright sunlit classroom that I still barely recognized after four months and saw one of the girls from my hall. Behind her was another hallmate. And another. And another. And another. I stopped in front of them, deeply confused.

“Hey, are you taking the final early instead of with your class?” I asked the girl in front.

She stared at me open-mouthed for a moment. “Laura, I’m in this class with you. I’ve sat in front of you all semester!”


I never took an eight o’clock class again.

One more important note: if I had ever actually observed my surroundings in that corner room of Montgomery Hall, I might have noticed a certain handsome blond who occasionally wore camo. Caleb was always several minutes early to philosophy. It’s probably a good thing he doesn’t remember me either. Pajama pants and braids wasn’t my best look.

True Tales of Unbelievable Social Awkwardness: The Embarrassment of Emily Rose


If I have a funny story to tell, it is physically painful for me to keep my mouth shut. I love to make people laugh, and it doesn’t matter where the story came from. Sometimes it happened to me, but sometimes I’ve heard it from someone else.

I now have rules for telling other people’s stories, and this is why.

Remember that horror movie The Exorcism of Emily Rose? It came out when I was in college, and it became a common topic of conversation on campus. Some of the details are fuzzy to me now, but sometime after the movie came out I remember eating lunch with my friend Zach in the cafeteria and chatting about class. He got an evil grin on his face.

“Oh, I have a funny story for you!”

Zach was an education major, and one of his courses did classroom simulations. One student would run the class, and the rest would act the parts of unruly elementary students. Zach, as I expected, enjoyed playing a bothersome child.

“So we were all sitting in class, being as obnoxious as possible. It was total chaos,” he said, eyes twinkling with mischief. “And then Emily Rose…” he pauses to look at me, “You know her, right?”

“Not really, but keep going,” I said.

“Anyway, Emily Rose is in the class. She was just sitting there and suddenly she pipes up, ‘I just want to say that I am not the Emily Rose from the movie! I am not demon-possessed! So stop spreading rumors!” Our table snorted with laughter over our cafeteria food. He kept on describing the chaos that ensued. The laughter thoroughly ruined the simulation, and Zach nearly made me snort food out of my nose.

Sometime later I was invited to a friend’s apartment to watch a movie. I think I was a little late because I didn’t get to introduce myself to everyone. The movie ended, and I found myself telling stories as a way to open up small talk with the people I didn’t know. Suddenly I remembered Zach’s story! I knew the friend who invited me would love it, so I started off.

“Oh, so I heard this hilarious story. You know Zach?”

I couldn’t wait to tell this one. My storytelling style is quite theatrical, and this one was so much fun to tell. My friend was smiling, but the room got quieter and quieter. I realized every single person was listening intently but not laughing. I was vaguely worried that I’d said something wrong, but no one seemed angry. Just blank. Or confused? Maybe I wasn’t telling it right. I barreled on, pouring on the drama. I came to punchline.

“I’m not the Emily Rose in the movie! I am not demon-possessed! So stop spreading rumors!” I laughed and smiled, “Isn’t that hilarious?”

“Yeah, it was pretty funny,” said an unfamiliar girl sitting on the couch in front of me. “I’m Emily Rose.”


And that, boys and girls, is why you never tell someone else’s story unless you know exactly who is in the group listening to you.


True Tales of Unbelievable Social Awkwardness: Spa Pizza Hut


I went on a mission trip to Hungary one summer in high school. I went with an independent mission agency that recruits all over the United States, and we were a crazy group. Only one of the other students had ever met me before, so I didn’t have any particular reputation. I’m not sure why the group got this impression, but they called me “the sweetheart” at first. Everyone made comments about me being so sweet and ladylike. It was an interesting change from being the Shakespeare nerd everyone was afraid to argue with in Sunday School, but it threw me for a loop.

“Aw, she’s here. How are you, sweetie?” my small group leader said. And then I realized she was talking to me.

“You’re just so adorable,” my friend Kevin* said every morning. I was used to guys whispering that I was intimidating, intense, or just plain scary. “Adorable” did not compute.

“Those glasses are so cute. You look like a little mouse or something.” No. Just… no. I still hate those glasses.

The whole gang was obviously suffering from hallucinatory delusions. It couldn’t last. The impulsive awkward me was going to smack them in the face (perhaps literally) sooner or later.

Pizza Hut in Hungary is actually a fairly fancy restaurant. The one near our dorm was several stories tall and had decor more like a Chili’s. The pizza wasn’t bad, so we ate there about once a week. One time our group leader ordered us pizza and a few batches of barbecue wings. We dug in, trading sarcastic jokes and movie quotes. The pizza had a lot of tomato sauce on it, and I felt some end up on my cheek.

Oh well, I thought to myself. I’ll get it after this next bite.  Then Henry* snorted with laughter and pointed at me.

“Dude, you have pizza all over you,” he said. I rolled my eyes.


“Aw, cute little Laura!” Kevin laughed.

Cute?  Little? Excuse me? I was indignant, but my mouth was full of pizza.

“You eat like a three-year-old,” Henry said, handing me a napkin.

Something snapped. I looked down at the plate that had previously held the chicken wings. I swallowed my pizza and raised one eyebrow at Henry across the table.

“I’ll show you how a three-year-old eats,” I said. I reached into the mess of oil, barbecue sauce, and chicken skin, and smeared a huge glob all around my mouth. I went back for another glob and covered my chin and nose.

The whole table freaked out.









“What is wrong with you, woman?” Henry yelled. He actually jumped out of his chair.

“You are completely insane!” Kevin said.

“I can’t believe you just did that!” Henry said, flailing like an octopus.

“Are you even a girl?” someone asked from the next table over.

“That was insane. And awesome. And insane!” Kevin said with a mix of approval and fear on his face.

“You said I eat like a three-year-old!” I said, an evil grin beneath the sticky mess on my face. “So I did.”

It took awhile for the group to recover from the shock, but the one guy who knew me before the trip gave me a knowing look and a wink. I was “the crazy one” for the rest of the five weeks. And I got a wicked case of acne.

Moral of the story: Barbecue sauce is not a good facial mask.

*Henry and Kevin are pseudonyms.


True Tales of Unbelievable Social Awkwardness: The Consequences of “Three” Instead of “Two”


There’s a strange thing that happens when you have a party and invite your school friends, church friends, and whatever-else-you-do friends. They tend to stick to talking to the group they know. But even worse, sometimes they talk to each other, and the results aren’t pretty. At the end of the night you sigh and face-palm yourself for letting them meet, and tell your mom or your husband “Well, I can’t ever invite Paul again.”

I feel certain this is why I don’t get invited to parties.

I am terrible at small talk. Horrible awful wretched pathetic! I tend to clam up and just stare awkwardly. Or I spew a bazillion bits of bizarre trivia at a stranger until they run away. Or I do things that make absolutely no sense and accidentally offend the person forever. This story is just one example.

I had been friends with Justin* for a long time, and at one of his high school birthday parties, I found myself in a conversation with Lane**, one of his friends I didn’t know. As usual, I had no idea what to say. I think I asked her about school and maybe complimented her t-shirt or something. She asked me how long I’d been friends with Justin. Then she asked me a simple question.

“How many siblings does he have?”

And I said, “Three.”

Except that wasn’t true. I meant two. For some reason I was frantically thinking that Justin was one of three siblings, and “three” came out instead of “two.” And unlike a normal person, I didn’t correct myself.

“Three? I thought he had two sisters,” she said.

“Yes, Kelly, Mindy, and Duncan***.”

To this day, I have no idea where “Duncan” came from.


“His little brother.”

“He has a brother?” Her eyes popped wide, and her jaw actually dropped.

“Yeah, you’ve never met Duncan?” I said, surprise in my voice that convinced even me.


“Really? You haven’t met him?”

“No! Where is he?”

I wanted to stop, but the snowball was rolling over me.

“Well, he’s not very social,” I said.


“He’s pretty quiet. And a little weird.”

“Oh,” she looked a little sad. “Really?”

“Yeah, I’ve met him, but I guess most other people haven’t. He’s doesn’t really like people.”

Doesn’t like people? What was I saying? Lane just nodded as if she understood, and I shrugged like I felt sorry for this imaginary hermit brother. Here I was, inventing a younger sibling for one of my closest friends, and I made him warped and antisocial. And then I made it worse.

“His room is in the basement. I think that’s part of it.”

“They have a basement?”

I was starting to scare myself. Justin’s parents did not have a basement!

“Yeah, they do.”

“Where is it?”

“You know the closet under the stairs back there?” I pointed to a room behind us. “There’s a little door inside to the basement.”

The door part was true. I knew it from playing hide and seek. The small door in the stair closet led to more storage.

“Oh.” She gave me a look, but it faded quickly. She still believed me.

“It’s not a bad room. A little dark, but he likes it,” I said.

“I totally didn’t know they had a basement!”

The snowball was now the size of a house. Or a room in a house.

“Yeah, he’s probably down there now. He wouldn’t like this party.”

There was beat there where she just stared at me with wonderment, and I just stared back.

“Wow, I had no idea he had a little brother,” she said finally.

“Neither did I until about five minutes ago.”

This was pretty much what she did.







She told his mother on me.

I stood there laughing like I’d done it on purpose, but inside I was wondering why I didn’t just say, “Oops, I meant two.”

*Justin is a pseudonym.

**Lane is also a pseudonym.

***Kelly and Mindy are also pseudonyms. Duncan is not a pseudonym. Why did I pick Duncan? I ask myself that every time I think of this story.