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Tuesday, July 31, 2018

How do you pronounce "mauve"?

I was talking to an American friend a few weeks ago, when she uttered the word "mauve". It didn't rhyme with "stove" as it does for me and obviously, therefore, should do for all right-minded people. 

The vowel in her "mauve" was what we would traditionally call a "short o", which you might transcribe variously (depending on your accent) as MAWV or MAHHV or MOV. 

Although I wisely refrained from saying, "How odd that you don't know how to pronounce that. How idiosyncratic!", I have to admit I did think it. Not so fast, Wordlady. A few days later, another American said "mauve" the same way. Curiouser and curiouser.

It turns out that Americans have had this variant short-o pronunciation of "mauve" since sometime in the mid-20th century. In the 1934 second edition of Merriam-Webster's New International Dictionary of English, only MOHV was given. But in the third edition, published in 1961, the short-o pronunciation appeared, listed second (i.e. the less frequent of the two). Since then, though, this pronunciation has taken over as much the more common one in the US. It is now listed first in Merriam-Webster's online dictionary, and is the only one given when you click on the "hear this word pronounced" icon: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/mauve

In a recent survey I did of a group of editors, "short-o" outnumbered "long-o" by a factor of two to one among Americans. (I suppose some of them from the Eastern Seaboard with varieties of English in which "tauter" and "totter" are not homophones may have a third pronunciation, like "MORV" without the R.) One of them even said, "I giggle to think it could rhyme with stove!" Another said, "MOHV is only the pronunciation in French, not in English."

But only Americans have this second pronunciation. Canadians, despite living next door, and being subjected to American home decorating and fashion TV shows, only rhyme it with "stove", and this is also true of the rest of the English-speaking world. The results of my survey with Canadians were a whopping 245 to two in favour of "rhymes with stove". Many Canadians are, like me, stunned to learn that a different pronunciation even exists.

Some commentators, however, complain that the now more common US pronunciation is "wrong", because after all the word came from French (more about that next week) and we should pronounce it as the French do. But Lord knows we have borrowed many French words into English and given them non-French pronunciations. We now say "MARGE ah rin" and not "mar ga REEN" for "margarine", for instance. Whatever the majority of speakers say becomes a standard pronunciation.

(Don't get me started on people who pronounce "brioche" bree-OASH instead of bree-OSH though! Just kidding, but it does bug me in spite of myself.)

Quite frankly, I don't know where short-o "mauve" started out in the US, or why. We borrowed "mauve" into English from French in the mid-19th century, so it is not a case of a pre-colonization pronunciation surviving in the US and being replaced by something else in Britain. (For examples of that phenomenon, see clamber, process, lieutenant, height, primer, herb, ancillary.)

It's not that frequent a word, so it's entirely possible that most people encounter it first in writing, and therefore apply the phonetic rules of their native language to the foreign spelling. But why this phenomenon should have happened for "mauve" only in the US and not in the other English-speaking countries, even those that are less influenced by French than Canada is, is still a mystery. 

The same vowel change has happened with earlier 19th- or 18th-century borrowings:
  1. the cooking use of "sauté", more commonly pronounced SAW tay than SO tay in both American and Canadian English, - though not the ballet term, which is only SO tay
  2. "vaudeville", by now pronounced almost exclusively VAWD vill

No one, to my knowledge, is suggesting that people should say "SO tay" or "VOH dvill" instead, but one never knows with language cranks.

But this vowel change has not happened (yet?) with more recent borrowings from the 20th century:
  1. "haute (cuisine etc.)" (mostly 20th century though some 19th)
  2. "fauve" (admittedly a specialist term) 
  3. "taupe" (also a fairly specialist term except that it is used a lot as a colour designation for pantyhose)
  4. "auteur"(also a specialist term)
  5. "chauffeur"
I suspect that within a generation, short-o may be the only pronunciation of "mauve" in US English.

There's a lot more to the story of mauve. What does it have to do with s'mores, for instance? Tune in next week for the continuation. 

And don't forget to tell me: long o or short o, how do YOU pronounce "mauve"?

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  1. SAH tay??
    Nope, no, never. I remember smiling when I first heard that in the U.S.
    But maybe my pronunciation is because I used to take ballet. (Oh how I miss that!)


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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.