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Monday, June 1, 2015

Lack, lock, or luck?


My lilac hedge is currently a plethora of pungent petals. Which leads me to wonder...

How is "lilac" pronounced anyway?

The Canadian Oxford Dictionary offers three possibilities, from most frequent to least: 
LIE l'k
LIE lock
LIE lack

Although I know we did a pronunciation survey for this, I still find it hard to believe that people really say LIE lack (I use the first pronunciation)

But Merriam-Webster has the same three pronunciations, in this order:

LIE lock
LIE lack
LIE l'k

So clearly we didn't make "LIE lack" up.

British dictionaries have only

LIE l'k

So what gives? 

Lilacs were introduced into European gardens in the late 1500s. Their ultimate origin was the Ottoman Empire, and before landing in England, the word had travelled the following lengthy route:
< French lilac, < Spanish lilac, < Arabic līlāk, apparently < Persian līlak, variant of nīlak bluish, < Persian nīl blue, indigo 

Notice that the French word back then was also lilac, though today it is lilas with the final consonant silent.  The early French spelling suggests that the pronunciation then in French was "leelack", and indeed our first English spellings also suggest this: 
1625   Bacon Essays 269   The Lelacke Tree.
1650   Surv. Nonsuch Palace, Archæol. V. 434   A fountaine of white marble..set round with six trees called lelack trees.
Since the 1600s saw substantial migration from Britain to North America, it is entirely possible that this older pronunciation came over at that time and stuck (to a certain degree), whereas in the motherland, it was gradually abandoned in favour of something else. 
By the 1700s we see spellings like "laylock", suggesting that CanOD's second-favourite pronunciation was beginning to take hold. By the mid-1800s, the spelling "lilac" had pretty much taken over, and it is impossible to deduce the pronunciation, though one has to assume that the British English tendency to reduce unstressed vowels to an indeterminate schwa was working its magic to turn "lielock" into "liel'k". 
Meanwhile, however, 19th-century American prescriptive pronunciation guides were insisting on "lielack", and there are still reports in the US of people on both sides of the lilac hedge being very judgemental about those who pronounce the shrub's name differently than they do. 

I wish people would spend their time and energy on something more useful, like smelling some lilacs and being thankful they exist.
The lilac's botanical name, Syringa (that's the uncontested "si RING ga" in case you were wondering), comes from the Greek word syrinx (pipe), because the tree's stems were easily hollowed out to be used for pipe stems. Indeed, another name for the lilac in the 1600s and 1700s was "pipe tree".
How do YOU pronounce "lilac"? Let me know!
And here's the Lilac Fairy (the symbol of goodness and wisdom) from Dresden Semperoper Ballet's Sleeping Beauty. If you would like to see it (and a lot of other great ballet) live in beautiful Dresden, why not check out my ballet trip to Berlin and Dresden next April. More info here: 

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1 comment:

  1. Jeff Josselyn-CreightonJune 2, 2015 at 3:04 PM

    I am interested in your suggestion that the pronunciation "leelack" may have migrated to North America and survived longer there, because that is how my father used to pronounce it! He was born in 1924 and grew up in Ottawa.


About Me

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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.