I am looking for a word with the definition "a word that is not spelled phonetically", that is, "a word that is pronounced very differently than the way it is spelled."

For example, victuals (pronounced /vittels/) and colonel (pronounced /kernal/) are examples of _________, words that are pronounced very differently than the way they are spelled.

I have tried many searches. I can't tell if there is no such word, or if I just can't find the correct way to phrase the question.

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    Could you provide an example, in context? – StoneyB on hiatus Jul 15 '16 at 14:43
  • Victuals (pronounced 'vittels') and Colonel (pronounced 'kernal') are examples of _________, words that are not pronounced phonetically. – Mendel Storch Jul 15 '16 at 15:44
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    All words are pronounced phonetically (there's no other way to pronounce them). Those words are not spelled phonetically. – StoneyB on hiatus Jul 15 '16 at 16:00
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    Just as counterpoint to moot assertions from earlier comments: language is gestural, not oral. Written language, likewise is gestural. As gesture, orthography serves many purposes. Phonetics, a social science and as such a much later technology than orthography, also postdates gestural, oral and written language. Phonetics, despite the heavy investment of many social scientists, fails to account for what it sets out to explain in evolutionary, cultural and neurolinguistic contexts (etc.)--because it is based on the errant hypothesis that language is oral, rather than gestural, in origin. – JEL Jul 26 '16 at 21:17
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    @JEL: Eh? Phonetics in general doesn't require any assumptions about evolution or the origin of language. You can analyze a spoken language synchronically using phonetic concepts. As for it "postdating" orthography, it seems to me that this depends on the cultural context. There are many languages that never had written orthographies until the language was phonetically analyzed by a linguist. – herisson Jul 26 '16 at 21:46

You got it right in your title. A word that is not spelled phonetically (that is, a word that's pronounced differently than it's spelled) is commonly called a non-phonetic word.

I couldn't find any authorities which use this term, but it's found all over the web. For example, this site defines non-phonetic words as "words that aren't pronounced like we'd expect."

This term is natural given certain senses of phonetic:

phonetic (Dictionary.com)

agreeing with pronunciation

phonetic spelling.


phonetic (Oxford Dictionary)

(Of a system of writing) having a direct correspondence between symbols and sounds.

We can easily imagine this latter definition being broadened to include in its domain words.

You can also find many discussions of phonetic languages versus non-phonetic languages.

A phonetic language is defined here as a language in which

The letters in its alphabet consistently correspond to the same sounds and form reliable patterns of pronunciation. If you know the rules, you can spell any word you hear. The relationship between spelling and pronunciation is strong.

The mapping between spoken sounds and written letters is much looser and inconsistent in English than in other languages like Spanish and Russian. Thus, English is regularly brandished as an example of a non-phonetic language. For example, here, here and here.

Given the above, it seems like non-phonetic word is exactly what you're looking for.

Unfortunately, this term would apply not only to extreme cases like victuals and colonel, but probably also to words like island and weigh and many others (especially loan words). If you only want to include extreme cases where the pronunciation isn't even mildly predictable from the spelling, you might use the term highly non-phonetic word.

Alternatives include:

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    In that case, something like “highly non-phonetic” might fit the OP’s bill. – Jon Purdy Jul 26 '16 at 22:54

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