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Friday, February 15, 2013

February or Febuary?

Here we are in February, so an opportune time to talk about the origin and pronunciation of this word.

In ancient Roman times, this was the last month of the year, a suitable time for ritual purification and atonement for sin in preparation for a fresh start in the new year. In particular, February 15 was the feast of ritual purification called Lupercalia.  Men wearing nothing but a wolf mask and a loincloth ran through the streets striking passersby with strips of goat hide.  This was supposed to impart fertility. I wouldn't recommend reviving this custom in Canada. Or anywhere, really.

In Latin, the word februa meant "purification". It's possible the word derived ultimately from the same Indo-European root word that gave Greek its word for sulphur, which was used in purificatory rites. So February was literally the month of purification.
When Christianity came to England, the Roman month names came with it, replacing in this case the evocative word meaning "Mud Month" that the Anglo-Saxons used for this time of year. (Along the same lines, the calendar designers of the French Revolution called it Pluviôse, or Rainy Month.)

It seems that ever since then people have had some difficulty pronouncing the two r's in such close succession. When two identical sounds are found close together in a word, a phonetic phenomenon called "dissimilation" tends to occur, in which one of them changes to make pronunciation easier.

With two r's, a particularly difficult phonetic feat to accomplish, one  often morphs into an l. For instance, the word "laurel" was originally "laurer" (and still is laurier in French, though the second r is now silent). And indeed, there is medieval evidence of February also being called "Feverel", following the same pattern.
Another tactic would be to drop one r altogether, and as early as the 1600s we see spellings suggesting that people were not pronouncing the first r.  To reinforce this trend, we conveniently have the name of January providing an analogy.

This "Febuary" pronunciation has become more and more common, so that nowadays, most dictionaries include it, and many  (among them the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, the New Oxford American Dictionary, and the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary) give it as the most common pronunciation. Although the Oxford Dictionary of English gives this pronunciation second, it then provides this note: "most people replace the r following Feb- with a y sound: Feb-yoo- rather than Feb-roo-. This is now becoming the accepted standard." 

The placing of the Febyooairy pronunciation first in the  Canadian Oxford Dictionary would have been based on a survey we did, but this month I conducted a new poll on facebook and was, I have to admit, astounded to discover that 79% of my respondents (most of whom are Canadian) said they pronounced the first r.
I bet you're wondering what I say! I'm a Febyooairy woman myself. This came as a surprise to some of my friends, who consider this pronunciation uneducated. The pronunciation of "February" seems to be a hot-button usage issue with some people.

Maybe we should revert to "Mud Month".

No matter how you pronounce "February", make sure you spell it correctly, with two r's
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  1. I'm a Yank (all over the place) and I say Febyooary, but I pronounce both /r/'s in library. Go figure. I think my prounciation is the most common in the US, but broadcasters seem to get very self-conscious about February and pronounce it the way they think it should be pronounced and, clearly, in a way that is not that familiar to them, so it often comes out wrong. I always looks forward to this month for that reason. -Jan in Iowa

  2. We have similar problems with library.

  3. I believe the correct pronunciation to be "feb-rah-wary", but "feb-roo-wary" is also acceptable. Saying "feb-yoo-wary" is similar to using "axe" to mean "ask".

  4. In Australia we tend to say "Febyouree" or "Febry" to get around the problem of two r's. We just cut out a syllable or two!

  5. feb u wear re (wear as in wear some clothes) tiss how most say it in my state also from Australia

  6. I've been spelling it wrong for my whole life -.- won't be doing that again

  7. Thank you very much for the information shared on your site. May I ask you what happens with the "r" in the following words in RP and non-rhotic accents: beware /bɪˈwɛə/, care /kɛə/, dare /dɛə/, there /ðɛə/, share /ʃɛə/, compare /kəmˈpɛə/, careful /ˈkɛəfʊl/, sphere /sfɪə/, figure /ˈfɪɡə/, and so on? In all of these cases “r” is neither at the end of the word nor before consonant (rules that many teachers of English teach). And in words like dare, care, share, it doesn't follow the "a"+"r" = silent "r" rule (and other similar rules) either. Are there any rules that can be applied in these cases? Thank you! All the best, Alex

  8. In those words the r is indeed phonetically at the end of the word or before a consonant, as the following e is not pronounced.

  9. Interesting. I always thought that only the uneducated pronounce the month as Febuary. I did not know that respectable dictionaries spell it as Febuary, in addition to February. I did notice though, two songs in which the singers pronounce the month as Febuary. Don McLean does in "American Pie" and Wyclef Jean in "Gone Till November".

  10. I like to tell people that it is Feb-brewery: easy to say, if you like beer!


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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.