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Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Wordlady of the Camellias

One of my all-time favourite ballets is John Neumeier's The Lady of the Camellias.

Quick now, how did you pronounce "camellia"? Was the middle syllable like "mell" or like "meal"? If you, like me, said "meal", you would probably be as surprised as I was to find this note in the Oxford English Dictionary
(Often mispronounced as caˈmēlia.)
Mispronounced? What are they talking about? I don't know anyone who says anything but "meal". (Maybe you do, and if so please let me know).

It turns out this is a holdover from the original entry, published in 1888, and not yet fully revised (you always have to be wary about this when consulting the OED), which gives the pronunciation as "ca mell eea". The rationale is that the flower was named (by Linnæus) after Kamel (latinized Camellus), a Moravian Jesuit who described the botany of the island of Luzon in the Philippines.

Once again, a usage condemned as "wrong" has become the standard usage. 

Of course, we English speakers also had to imitate the Latin spelling of Kamel's name, with its double l, unlike the French, who are quite happy with camélia, and the Germans, who like Kamelie.

Here for your viewing pleasure is one of the fabulous pas de deux from Neumeier's ballet. Sometimes it's just better not to have any damn words, and their associated spelling and pronunciation issues, getting in the way. 

(I know, did I just SAY that?? Who is writing this post, and what has she done with Wordlady?)


1 comment:

  1. Following the phonetic rules, it should be a short "e" in Camellia because it is followed by 2 consonants as in "super supper" or "dinner diner". However I say Cameellia as does everyone I have ever heard pronounce it. Obviously phonetic rules are made to be broken.


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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.