Welcome to the Wordlady blog!

This blog is about the fascinating, fun, and challenging things about the English language. I hope to entertain you and to help you with problems or just questions you might have with spelling and usage. I go beyond just stating what is right and what is wrong, and provide some history or some tips to help you remember. Is something puzzling you? Feel free to email me at wordlady.barber@gmail.com.
You can also order my best-selling books, Six Words You Never Knew Had Something to do With Pigs and Only in Canada You Say. Fun and informative!


Subscribe! Fun facts about English delivered weekly right to your inbox. IT'S FREE! Fill in your email address below.
Privacy policy: we will not sell, rent, or give your name or address to anyone. You can unsubscribe at any point.

Follow by email

Search This Blog

Friday, May 18, 2018

The wine guy

On the streetcar the other day, I was unavoidably overhearing someone on her cellphone discussing her party planning when I was puzzled by her statement, "So I booked a Somali, eh."

When did East Africans become the latest hip party accessory, I wondered.

Then the penny dropped. 



A sommelier is a wine waiter, one specially trained in the pairing of food and wine. More recently, there are tea sommeliers, beer sommeliers and honey sommeliers. I have even read about water sommeliers, but I hope this concept has died under the weight of its own pretentiousness.

If you're trying to impress your friends with your highfalutin party plans, I suggest you learn how to pronounce the words properly.

In French, sommelier is pronounced
somm 'll YAY
And I believe that is true for Canadian English as well, though apparently not for my fellow traveller on the streetcar. Some Canadians may stress the first syllable rather than the last.

I was surprised to see that Merriam-Webster lists the only American pronunciation as
suh m'll  YAY
and Oxford UK dictionaries as
somm ELL yay
but the British have a long history of stressing the wrong syllable in words borrowed from French.

How do YOU pronounce "sommelier"?
Back in the Middle Ages, the person in charge of the wine in a great French household was called a bouteiller, literally the guy in charge of the bottles. We merrily borrowed this as with so many French words designating the high life after the Norman Conquest, and it became our word "butler". But while "butler" survived in English, bouteiller did not survive in French.

The word sommelier at this point had been around for a while in French. It started out with the Latin word sagma (a packsaddle). This morphed, by way of saugmarius (a pack animal), into somerier (a driver of pack animals), and then into sommelier (person in charge of the baggage). 

But a sommelier wasn't just any old mule driver cum baggage handler. At about the time bouteiller was dying out, the sommelier was the officer in charge of the baggage when the royal court was travelling. Inevitably every wealthy household wanted a sommelier in charge of their household goods. Wine, as always in France, was considered particularly important, so soon a sommelier was the guy in charge of the wine. We borrowed it from the French in the 19th century.

I would say that the word has been in English long enough, and has become frequent enough, especially since the 70s, that it does not need to be italicized.


  1. Now there's a word I never use!
    But wouldn't the French pronounce it with each syllable equally loaded?

    1. yes, technically in French syllables are stressed equally but as English speakers can't do this, stressing the last syllable is the closest approximation.

  2. Interesting! I've heard the streetcar pronunciation many times (in western Canada), so I assumed that was the anglicized form. Forvo has a few examples from different languages; the English one (by a Brit) is similar to but not exactly like the streetcar version: https://forvo.com/search/sommelier/fr/


About Me

My photo
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.