WATCH: Why Do These Words Have Different Pronunciations?
Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong famously sang about the controversial pronunciations of words like tomato (to-mah-to?), potato (po-tah-to?), either, neither, pajamas, and others in the song “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.” They settled nothing, and people have been debating the right way to say these words ever since.
And those aren’t the only words that send people to opposing corners, either. There are a host of words that, for whatever reason, people just can’t reach a conclusion as to which way they should be pronounced.
If you want to get people all fired up, just mention one of these words and watch the orthoepy fires ignite. Even dictionaries dive into the fray on occasion.
So how do you pronounce these words?
For such a sweet word, caramel can cause some pretty sticky conversations. Some people choose to skip a syllable and pronounce it like car [ kahr-muhl ], while others pronounce it as a three-syllable word beginning with care: [ kar–uh-muhl ]. There’s also [ kar–uh-mel ], because why have two pronunciations when three is even more confusing?
First evidence of the word in English dates back to 1715–25. It stems from the French caramel (“burnt sugar”) and Spanish caramelo. It’s likely derived from the Latin word cannamella, meaning “sugar cane,” which is equivalent to the Latin words canna (“cane”) and mel (“honey”).
Talk about a word that gets people riled up. GIF or gif stands for “graphics interchange format,” that much is fact. The way it’s pronounced, however, is the subject of much debate since the word was introduced into our language around 1985–90.
At Dictionary.com, we stand by the pronunciation as [ jif ] (as in the peanut butter brand or a giraffe) as that’s how the inventor of the format, Steve Wilhite, says it should be pronounced. Plenty of others though say it should be pronounced [ gif ] with a hard G as in golf. That leads some people to opt for a version along the lines of “There’s this jif or gif—however you say it …”
When it comes to these vessels that typically hold flowers, there are a variety of ways people pronounce vase. There’s [ veys ] (rhymes with case), [ veyz ] (rhymes with daze), and [ vahz ] (rhymes with cause). Which one is right? Take your pick. Most people in the United States pronounce it [ veys ], but if you want to be fancy, go ahead and say [ vahz ].
First evidence of the word dates back to 1555–65 French. It is derived from the Latin word vās, meaning “vessel.”
Color most people confused when it comes to this pale shade of bluish purple. Many people pronounce mauve with a short A sound like father [ ah ], but the correct pronunciation actually rhymes with stove: [ mohv ]. (Yeah, that blew our minds, too!)
The purple dye used to make the color was discovered in 1856, obtained from aniline. Its name stems from the French word mallow, itself derived from the Latin word malva meaning “mallow,” which refers to the mallow plant that has purple markings on its petals.
You can never have too many baubles or too much bling, which may help you remember that the word jewelry can be pronounced multiple ways: with three syllables [ joo–uhl-ree ] and two [ jool-ree ]. The pretty word dates back to 1300–50, stemming from the Anglo-French word juelerie, which is equivalent to juel, meaning “jewel,” and the suffix -erie.
Talk about an oft-mispronounced word. To include the T sound, or not include the T sound—that is the question. There are four pronunciations for often included in this dictionary: [ aw-fuhn ], [ of–uhn ]; [ awf-tuhn ], and [ of-tuhn ].
The T can be silent [ aw-fuhn ], though it used to be pronounced early on, when the word was a variant of oft (think oft-quoted). First evidence of the word dates back to 1300–50 when it was spelled oftin. But around the 1600s, the educated classes in North America and Great Britain deemed the T sound unfavorable, and for some, that’s still the case today.
You just may surprise your friends when you tell them that it’s perfectly acceptable to pronounce the L in almond—or not! There are three pronunciations for almond: [ ah-muhnd ], [ am–uhnd ], and [ al-muhnd ]. ‘Cause sometimes you feel like an L, and sometimes you don’t.
In California, where more than 80 percent of the world’s almonds are grown, the debate over pronunciation splits along age and region. Older farmers (from established farming families) and those in the North tend to omit the L. (And even have a rhyme for it: “It’s an almond when it’s in the tree and an amond when it’s on the ground because the L gets shaken out of it!”)
First evidence of the word in English dates back to 1250–1300 when it was spelled almande. It stems from the Old French word alemande.
Here’s another one most people have been pronouncing wrong their entire lives: sherbet. Nope, there’s no R in the second syllable, and you don’t need to put one in when you’re pronouncing the name of this yummy frozen fruit-flavored concoction either.
This word dates back to 1595–1605, stemming from the Turkish and Persian word sharbat, which comes from the Arabic word sharbah, meaning “a drink.” As you can see, neither of these words includes an R. The sound—known as an intrusive R—was added when the word was imported into English. (An intrusive R also appears when tuna is pronounced by some as tuner.)
Speaking of fruity things, let’s talk acai. This vibrant purple berry comes from a palm tree found in Central and South America called the Euterpe oleracea. The health benefits of acai as well as the pretty acai bowls peppering social media accounts have led to the fruit’s recent popularity.
But how to pronounce the superfood? It should be [ ah-sah-ee ] or [ ah-sahy-ee ]. There’s no hard C nor does it rhyme with bye. The word dates back to 1850–60 to the Portuguese word açaí, which stems from the Tupi-Guarani word asaí.
WATCH: Common Food Names We’re Mispronouncing
How fancy you are will probably determine how you pronounce foyer. Saying [ foi-er ] is just fine, as is [ foi-ey ], or if you want to add a little French to your lingo, you might say [ fwa-yey ]. Take your pick.
The word, which means “the lobby of a theater, hotel, or apartment house” or “a vestibule or entrance hall in a house or apartment” comes from French, where it meant “fireplace or hearth” as it was originally used to describe the room where theatre patrons went between acts to get warm.
With these pronunciation guidelines, you’ll be able to settle a few debates—or astound your friends with your newfound knowledge. And as far as tomato goes, why don’t we call the whole thing off? Both pronunciations are in the dictionary, after all!
And while we’re talking about pronunciation, can we have a discussion on whether accent marks are necessary or not?