When I use a word…: Difficult pronunciation

BMJ 1997; 315 doi: (Published 12 July 1997) Cite this as: BMJ 1997;315:j
  1. Jeff Aronson, clinical pharmacologist
  1. Oxford

    The incidence of diarrhoea associated with antibiotics has increased in the John Radcliffe Hospital in recent years, and in many cases we find Clostridium difficile toxin in the stools. The other day, after a long ward round, we went to the mess to take refreshments and wind down. “How do you pronounce 'C. diff.'?” our senior house officer asked, avoiding the problem. I knew what he meant.

    If “difficile” were French it would be pronounced “dee-'fee-seal” but it isn't. If it were Italian it would be pronounced “dee-'fee-chi-li” but it isn't. “Difficile” is Latin, the neuter form of difficilis, difficult, and the organism is so called because it is difficult to grow in the laboratory. If you were taught to pronounce Cicero “Kikero” you would pronounce difficile “di-fi-'ki-li” or “di-'fi-ki-li,” and if you were taught to say “Sissero” you would pronounce it “di-fi-'si-li” or “di-'fi-si-li.” I was taught the former but I prefer to say “di-'fi-si-li,” which to me sounds the most euphonious of all the options.

    Another Latin word that poses a similar problem with pronunciation is “rationale.” Indeed, it is so commonly mispronounced that the mispronunciation has become standard. Since rationale is the neuter form of the Latin word rationalis, the final e should be pronounced. The first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (the relevant fascicle of which was published in 1905) gave the pronunciation as “rash-u-'nai-li” and so did Webster's New International (1911). This pronunciation was still recommended in the 1959 edition of Chambers 20th Century Dictionary, although by then the alternative pronunciation “rash-u-'nah-li” was also given. By the time that the next edition of the Chambers dictionary was published in 1972 “rash-u-'nai-li” had disappeared, and the alternatives were “rash-i-o-'nah-li” and “rash-u-'nah-li.”

    However, at around this time, and presumably through the mistaken belief that the word is French, it was increasingly coming to be pronounced “rash-u-'nahl.” French has no such word, but this pronunciation has become so prevalent that it has been given first place in virtually all dictionaries since the early 'seventies. Some, such as Collins English Dictionary (1979) and The Chambers Dictionary (1993) give it as the sole pronunciation, although others, such as Chambers English Dictionary (1988) and the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (1989), give “rash-u-'nah-li” or even “rash-u-'nai-li” as alternatives.

    In preferring the quasi-French pronunciation, the dictionary makers are not being prescriptive; they are merely following fashion. So, you can pronounce rationale almost any way you like. And that's finale.

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