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Monday, April 13, 2020

Whatever happened to ptomaine poisoning?

Photo by Wesual Click on Unsplash
Whenever I write a post about pronunciation, it inevitably sets off a flurry of other pronunciation questions from readers, especially if silent letters are involved.

We have (unfortunately) an almost inexhaustible supply of silent letters in English.

Today's example is the old-fashioned word "ptomaine".  People used to refer to food poisoning as "ptomaine poisoning. The word is pronounced toe main (but keep reading for a surprise about that).
Any of a group of amines [organic compounds derived from ammonia] (e.g. cadaverine, putrescine, neurine) of unpleasant taste and odour, formed in putrefying animal and vegetable matter and formerly thought to cause food poisoning


Never say that Wordlady fails to introduce you to lovely words. Anyway, it has been determined that these charmingly named substances are not the actual cause of food poisoning; they just coexist with the toxic bacteria that are. The well-known food poisoning bacteria are Clostridium botulinum, which causes botulism, and salmonella

Botulism, though no fun at all, does at least have an entertaining etymology:
Late 19th century from German Botulismus, originally ‘sausage poisoning’, from Latin botulus ‘sausage’, because first identified in badly preserved sausages.
Death by sausage, as it were. And how appropriate that it was Germans who first named it.

"Ptomaine" came into English in the 19th century from the French ptomaïne, from Italian ptomaina, formed irregularly from Greek ptōma ‘corpse’. Goodness this post is getting morbid.

As to the pronunciation, the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, in 1909, gave two possibilities:

toe may ine
ptoe may ine
Yes, with a pronounced p. This pronunciation was doomed to failure because English speakers are just not good at initial pt-.

The dictionary even got quite sniffy about the pronunciation that has since become standard:  
‘it is to be regretted that the full correction to ptomatine was not made at its reception into English, which would also have prevented the rise of the illiterate pronunciation toe MAIN, like domain’.
You know, it's unwise to make judgemental remarks about pronunciations you consider "illiterate", because, as we have seen before with words like "balcony" and "camellia",  in a hundred years you'll just look ridiculous.

Well, I'm sorry to inflict a post about food poisoning on you in these times, but at least I am pretty sure you're unlikely to get botulism or salmonella from your chocolate bunny.

Do you use the term "ptomaine poisoning", or have you done so in the past?


  1. Many years ago, in my youth ptomaine was the only way sickness from food was discussed !!

  2. If I have be illiterate, then let something that hygiene can prevent be my downfall. I´m not sure I´ll bring this subject up at my next literary soiree. Thanks for the fun, though!

  3. I haven't heard "ptomaine" for ages, but I remember it was quite common when I was younger, in western Canada.

  4. I agree with the previous post. I probably used to use this term but haven't heard it for years. Very informative and amusing post. "Death by sausage" sounds like an awesome book title!

  5. Does anyone remember the Allan Sherman 1960's sing "Hello Muddah, Hello Fadah" which contains the line ..."you remember Leonard Skinner, he got ptomaine poisoning after dinner..."
    That name Leonard Skinner gave the band Lynrd Skynrd the idea for the band name from this song


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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.