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Tuesday, December 12, 2017

How do you pronounce "grimace"?


A friend of mine recently posted on facebook that she was surprised to hear a narrator pronounce the word "grimace" as "grim ACE". 

Several others chimed in that this was clearly wrong.  Everyone knows it's pronounced "GRIM us".

I thought so too, but it's always best to check before making pronunciation pronouncements. Lo! It appears that "GRIM us" is an upstart. A hundred years ago, "grim ACE" was the only pronunciation for this word. 

Before that, when we first borrowed the noun in the 1600s from the French grimace, we pronounced it a la francaise "gree MASS". By the time we turned the noun into a verb in the 1700s, it was being pronounced "gree MACE".

It is not uncommon for the stress in English to migrate from the second syllable to the first, leaving the vowel in the second, unstressed syllable to be reduced to a schwa. This is clearly what happened, though it is hard to say when exactly in the 20th century this came about. 

One thing is for sure, when we surveyed Canadians about their pronunciation of "grimace" for the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, no one said "grim ACE", so we included only the "GRIM us" pronunciation. Other dictionaries, however, give "GRIM us" first and "grim ACE" second.
There are two theories as to the ultimate origin of "grimace":
  1. Middle French, alteration of grimache, of Germanic origin; akin to Old English grīma mask
  2. Spanish grimazo caricature, from grima fright.
How do you pronounce "grimace"? 

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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.