How to Talk British Part 5: Pronunciation Peeves

diplodocusWelcome to our fifth installment of How to Talk British!

Can you believe it has been five months since our last classroom was called to order? Clearly, this Mother Hen has let things slip a bit, and hence the entire balance of Anglo-American relations has taken a decided shift for the worse!

As ever, my inspiration comes in all shapes and sizes. This past week, it took the form of a 26 metre-long sauropod by the name of Dippy, star attraction of the Natural History Museum in London.

Dippy, it seems, is being replaced by the skeleton of a blue whale, an act sure to draw the wrath of parents and schoolchildren throughout the country who have been streaming into the museum for over a hundred years to view his bones on display. I remember well taking my own children to the NHM many years ago to admire Dippy’s bony smile and impossibly long tail, frozen and whiplike, suspended from the vaulted ceiling. He was quite the sight!

Oddly, it was not Dippy’s replacement that had me so hot under the collar when the announcement was made last week: It was the gross mispronunciation of his name.

You see, Dippy is a diplodocus. If you are American, you no doubt pronounced it correctly: di-PLOD-i-kus. If you are British, you likely pronounced it thusly: dip-lo-DOKE-us. Honestly. I was wracking my brain trying to work out how this could possibly happen, how the BBC and ITV and every other news service over here could get it so… wrong.

So I started digging around a bit, and discovered that British children have been schooled in this pronunciation from infancy… “hocus, pocus… dip-lo-DOKE-us…” or some such silly nursery rhyme. So, technically speaking, they are not actually WRONG, just misinformed.

Thanks in large part to the wonders of Google, I discovered that this hot debate over the correct pronunciation of diplodocus is an ongoing issue, one that needs to be solved swiftly and decisively before our two countries slide into some pretty dark waters.

Frankly, I don’t like dark waters much. So, let me solve it for us all, right here and now: The Brits, though they may argue that in combining the Greek terms of diplos (double) and dokos (beam) results in their pronunciation, are in the minority. Not only does it sound perfectly silly to pronounce it dip-lo-DOKE-us, it is pretty much out of harmony with the natural flow of speech, no matter what country you live in.

We do not, for example, call a rhinoceros a ry-no-SEER-us, now do we? Nor do we call a triceratops a tri-sare-A-tops. It just doesn’t happen. It takes more linguistic energy to mispronounce diplodocus than to pronounce it as the vast majority of the scientific community does, di-PLOD-i-kus.


Well, at least I don’t have to worry about that pesky Malaria…

Here are a few more pronunciation debates that crop up from time to time: I am a fan of the odd gin and tonic, and most of us are aware that tonic water contains quinine. Let me ask you this: When you read that, did you pronounce it KWIGH-nine (rhymes with high line), or KWIH-neen (which rhymes with Janeane)? Mm hmm. See? Isn’t that irritating? For the life of me, as an American, there are few sillier sounding words than the British quinine. The same pattern holds for strychnine, and probably quite a few more chemical terms ending -nine. Here, it will most likely be pronounced -neen.

Aluminum (uh-LOO-mi-num) vs. aluminium (AL-yoo-MIN-i-um): Who is right? We both are. Americans dropped the second ‘i’, so why should we pronounce it? Having said that, on this side of the water, it rhymes with condominium, and to pronounce it any other way is to sound stupid. Or American. Or, quite possibly and depending on what circles you are travelling in, BOTH.

Respiratory: Is it pronounced REH-spy-RAY-tory, re-SPIRE-a-tory, RES-pa-tree, or, as the Yanks do, re-sprah-TOR-ee? Well, that would depend on which side of the water you live, but I’m with the Yanks on this one since it is by far easier to pronounce. Well, for me anyway – ha! 🙂

Is it VIGH-ta-min, or VIT-a-min? Does it matter? Not really… just make sure you take yours every day! This one doesn’t bother me too much, really, but it tends to be one of THOSE words that divides people. It is also a word Americans use if they want to sound posh. It never works, but it doesn’t stop them trying.

Privacy: Everyone wants a bit of it, but how do we say it properly? Is it PRIH-vi-see or PRIGH-vi-see? Frankly, I’m with the Brits on this one, mainly because I’m a little lazy and it’s easier to say once you get used to it.

When you come to Britain on an organized tour, you will be given some sort of itinerary or schedule… you may pronounce these i-TIN-er-AIR-ee and SKEH-jool if you are a Yank, but your tour guide may call these your i-TIN-ree or SHED-jool. Just strive for consistency and don’t try to mix and match. It may be tempting, but … just don’t.

mind the gapThe same goes for mimicking anyone speaking with a British accent while over here. Especially on public transportation. Yes, it does sound a little odd the first few times you hear “Mind the gap!” and “The train is approaching the platform” spoken in a posh British accent, but try really, really hard not to mimic it. It is just offensive, and not nearly as amusing as many American tourists seem to believe.

Note: If your British tour guide mentions plans for CHOOSE-day, they really mean Tuesday. Just saying.

A few more to consider: Water is not pronounced wodder – it is pronounced WAW-tah in England, an advertisement is an ad-VERT-iz-ment, the “h” in herb is pronounced, oregano is pronounced o-re-GAH-no, not o-REH-ga-no, and in a restaurant, ketchup may well be called tow-MAH-tow sawce. Yes, I just spelled it sawce. That is exactly how it sounds.

For the record, mustard will never, EVER be French’s (which is kind of a misnomer, since it is not actually French mustard, but thoroughly American!), but it will probably be Coleman’s English mustard, which is very, very strong and will make your eyes water and your nose run. Just think horseradish. If you like horseradish, you will probably like Coleman’s.

When in doubt, just ask for mayonnaise, since the Brits tend to serve it with everything. It will almost surely be Hellmann’s, and it is the same on both sides of the pond. So that’s one thing we have in common, anyway…

Until next time, my lovelies!

Mother Hen

  • feature photo: Shutterstock
  • diplodocus:
  • tonic water:
  • mind the gap:

© motherhendiaries 2015, all rights reserved

28 replies »

  1. I actually like the British pronunciation of privacy, and use it myself sometimes to sound fancy. Then again, one of the fun things we always did in my family was pronounce words as they were spelled for the humor value. Even in regular conversation, I will still call that stuff Victoria’s Secret sells “LING-er-ee”, and the product Massengill sells “DOO-kee”…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You do know these are my favourite posts you do, don’t you? I missed commenting on it when you wrote it, but I enjoyed it very much at the time and again just now!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I pronounce all of the words you cite in the British way with two exceptions: I have always pronounced diplodocus correctly (probably because I was really into dinosaurs as a kid) and I pronounce water as Wott-Urr. Because I am Scottish, I am rhotic and as such I always vocalise the R sounds. I actually roll my Rs more than even the average Scottish person. I find most people in America can understand what I am wittering on about despite my British pronunciation (though people have difficulty with my accent on the phone) but I do have to speak a little slower than usual at times.


Cheep, Cluck or Crow... Just Make Some Noise!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s