On the Vagaries of English Pronunciation

English pronunciation certainly has its idiosyncrasies, evidenced by the word ‘vagary’ itself. You say / və-gâr’ē/, I say /vā’gə-rē /. Let’s call the whole thing off, especially before I have to type any more words in IPA. While at work one day, I used this word while making some now-forgotten point, and a fellow professor told me that my pronunciation of VEY-guh-ree was incorrect. It should be pronounced vuh-GAH-ree. Never having heard this pronunciation and knowing that my colleague’s humor tends towards the dry and sarcastic, I believed that I was the victim of a leg pulling. Alas, though, the evidence was in the dictionary. Two dictionaries were produced, one of which only offered the vuh-GAH-ree pronunciation, the other of which offered both as perfectly acceptable alternatives.

I should have been satisfied. I was not. I did a little research. There wasn’t an impressive consensus, especially on which phonetic rendering was used, but here’s what the dictionaries said:
1) The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories (2002) doesn’t mention a pronunciation, but it does place the origins in the 16th century, which gives the word plenty of time to mutate. It comes from the Latin vagari “to wander” and was briefly a verb, meaning “to roam.” It settled into its noun form and has roamed and rambled from meaning “roam and ramble” to “capricious action.”
2) The Oxford English Dictionary Volume XII (1933) lists only one pronunciation: As of 1933, the only option was vuh-GAIR-ee, which isn’t even the pronunciation being offered by my colleague. He’d turned the second vowel into a broad AH as opposed to the diphthong EY (think Fonzi).

3) Webster’s Complete and Unabridged (1958) says that both pronunciations are acceptable, with vuh-GAIR-ee being listed first, and VEY-guh-ree being listed as an alternative pronunciation.

4) The New Lexicon Webster’s Dictionary (1989) turns table on its previous edition and offers two pronunciations, the first one being VAY-guh-ree, and second, vuh-GAIR-ee and it means “an irrational idea, passing fancy//an odd or irrational action.” So sometime in the 31 years between the Complete and Unabridged and the New Lexicon Webster’s, not only was a second pronunciation introduced, but it took over the previous one.

5) Webster’s Revised Unabridged (1996) suddenly claims that only vuh-GAIR-ee is the acceptable pronunciation. I was started to get annoyed, but not as much as I would eventually become when I opened the…

6) …American Heritage 4th Edition (2006), which said that VEY-guh-ree was the first and most common pronunciation, but vuh-GAIR-ee was an alternate form.

At the risk of inducing crippling frustration, I took to the Internet, that bastion of all information great and small, and consulted dictionary.com to get some more references.

7) The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition (2009) claims the same two as the Webster’s and in the same order: VEY-guh-ree, then vuh-GAIR-ee.
But wait! There’s more!

8) Random House Dictionary (2010) gives the same two pronunciations but in reverse order: vuhGAIR-ee, and then VEY-guh-ree. So, one year later, is the older pronunciation back in charge?

Clearly, this was getting me nowhere. After all the musty dictionary research, I decided to take this to the streets and do an informal, thoroughly unscientific usage poll. I asked colleagues at work – people who have been working with language their whole lives – and who were older than me and may have had experience with both the pronunciations. I found that two out of fourteen people preferred the vuh-GAIR-ree pronunciation. Nine people said VEY-guh-ree and had never even heard the other pronunciation. Three others had heard both pronunciations and preferred VEY-guh-ree.

Therefore, my unscientific poll leads me to jump to the conclusion that the newer pronunciation is winning. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. There’s no need to go any further. Clearly, the results in a sample size of fourteen – fourteen! – can easily be applied to the general population – millions of English speakers! – and we can state with absolute confidence that only 14% of the United States population will ever say the word vuh-GAIR-ree. Ever. Really. (Pardon me as I go wipe the sarcasm off the floor.)

So, why does this interest me so? Why does the pronunciation of one little word, fabulous though it may be, cause me to pore over dictionaries and Internet articles, and interrupt my colleagues for their knee-jerk native speaker intuitions about pronunciation? What really got me thinking about this word was the reaction of the original comment. I should say, rather, that it was the vehemence with which I was corrected that caught my attention. This person felt very strongly about the pronunciation of this word and was emotionally invested in its defense.

Languages change constantly. Some of the changes are subtle and often go unnoticed, for example, the pronunciation of Latin-based 50-cent words. Others, meanwhile, are like flashing neon signs saying “Pay attention to ME,” for example the leaking of texting shortcuts into mainstream writing, appropriately or not. The technology is changing at lightning speed, and so the language associated with this technology is also trying to keep up. Whether or not this is a good thing (IT’S NOT! IT’S BAD!!!) will be the subject of a future post (clearly I have an opinion on this!). However we feel about it, it’s out there and we’re fairly powerless to stop it.

Regardless of how loudly or quietly these changes happen, we react to them. I was trained as a good little descriptive linguist, which means I should merely observe these changes and take an academic, intellectual interest in their form and function. I could, for instance, objectively ponder the ramifications of the simplified spelling reform about which George Bernard Shaw was so passionate over a century ago without becoming emotionally involved myself. (Ah, if only he had had an iPhone and unlimited texting on his cell phone plan!) However, I am not always objective about linguistic changes that I see. Some things truly don’t bother me and other things do. What makes some changes innocuous and others so repugnant? Why does one man fight for vuh-GAIR-ee while the woman sitting next to him is perfectly content with the newer VEY-guh-ree? It seems the vagaries are less in our pronunciation and more in ourselves.

6 thoughts on “On the Vagaries of English Pronunciation

  1. Vagaries is one of those many words which I understand but wouldn’t say out loud because:
    1) I don’t trust my crowd to understand its meanings; but more importantly
    2) I’m not exactly sure how to say it, having only read it and not often hearing it out loud. I’m with you, though, VEY-ga-ries it is.

    Another of “my” pronunciations – it is nearly impossible for me not to hear a word rhyming with “suave” whenever I read the word “mauve.”

    When I was young, I would to try out my new vocabulary much to the amusement of others when I said a 50 cent word incorrectly. Such are the perils of being a precocious reader.

    • It took me months to say “disheveled” and actually feel confident about it.

      I loved to read, too, and learned to be careful about which words I trotted out, but I also had pronunciation foibles due to a few words I pronounced the same as my non-native speaker parents. To add insult to injury, I also couldn’t say an initial /r/ until after a few months of speech therapy at school. My sister took endless delight in tricking me to say words that started with /r/, and hear me pronounce them with a /w/ instead.

  2. Pingback: Hackles up! | As a Linguist…
  3. I had been using the more common pronunciation in your survey, and then was corrected by my beloved in much the way your colleague insisted on vuh GAR ee. I then realized that I had not recalled hearing the word spoken, and thought that I had simply assumed pronunciation from reading. Thank you for the vindication. I’ll show your article to her in the morning.

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