I just realized I’ve been misspelling and mispronouncing “detritus” all my life.

I’ve been a college English faculty member for over 20 years and I just realized I’ve been spelling and pronouncing “detritus” wrong all my life. A short while ago I realized I had typed “detrius” — and that’s how I heard the word in my head — “DEE tree us.” But the word has an extra T and it’s actually pronounced “duh TRY tus.”

I don’t have much cause to use the word professionally or in my daily life, so I’m not too broken up about it. I probably read the word somewhere as a kid.

I remember when I was about 10, my mother corrected my pronunciation of “debris,” which I had read in a Star Trek novel. I believe I recall having spoonerized the word as “DERR-biss,” and for some reason in my head I hear that mispronunciation in the voice of Mr. Spock.

As the new semester starts, I’m conscious of gaps in my own knowledge. When I was reading The Hobbit to my kids, I made some passing comment to about a pony growing up to be a full-sized horse, and my daughter — who was about six at the time — was shocked that I thought a pony was a baby horse.

I try to remind students that academia is a totally artificial environment, where professors can seem a lot smarter than they are, simply because we get to set the agenda, and we can limit the topic of conversations to areas where we are experts. Of course we’re supposed to be experts, and we get excited when we have the chance to share something we’ve devoted our lives to. The more I learn about my field, the more I realize I don’t know. But in every class I teach, there are already students who know more than I know about plenty of subjects. Some classes are better suited than others when it comes to letting students share their expertise.

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