I remember being a small child in the playground at school and calling the black stuff that we were playing on ‘bitumen’, and having another child ‘correct’ me, saying, “No, it’s called ashfelt.” “Ah,” I thought, “I feel less ignorant”. I continued to use the term ‘ashfelt’ for many years after, even when I knew that it was spelt ‘asphalt’. That seems to be how we pronounce it here in Australia.

When I moved to the US and used the term to HL he seemed entirely ignorant of the concept of ‘ashfelt’, and I had to explain to him what I was talking about. Once he grasped what I meant he laughed at me, long and heartily, that we could be so silly as to pronounce the word ‘asphalt’ as ‘ashfelt’, not ‘ass fault’. “But you’re adding an extra ‘h’ where there isn’t one,” he said incredulously, “it just sounds silly”.

And yes, he was right, it does sound silly. So I now pronounce it ‘ass fault’.

Tonight I was watching Can We Help? , and the ‘Wise Words’ segment dealt with this exact question – why do we mispronounce ‘asphalt’? Apparently it has something to do with the British propensity for turning foreign, unfamiliar words into something that sounds more like a word that might exist in English – so the Latin ‘asphalton’ becomes the pedestrian ‘ash felt’.

Huh…so I guess the playground ‘correction’ wasn’t so helpful and enlightening as I first thought it to be. Turns out I was given the lazy and uninspired version of a much better sounding word. And, in hindsight, ‘bitumen’ is actually a much more interesting term. There’s so much to unlearn from childhood…