The Grammarphobia Blog

A jewel of a word

Q: Why do so many people mispronounce “jewelry”? I find this particularly ubiquitous and irritating. More often than not, the word comes out “JOO-lu-ree” rather than “JOO-ul-ree.” Recently, I even heard the abomination spoken on PBS by (shock, horror!) an English actor with perfect diction.

A: The word is usually spelled differently in the U.S. and the U.K., which may have something to do with the differences in pronunciation. In American English, the word is spelled “jewelry”; in British English, it’s most often spelled “jewellery.”

Despite the different spellings, however, the word should be pronounced the same on both sides of the Atlantic.

H.W. Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, second edition, says the correct pronunciation is “JOO-ul-ree,” no matter how it’s spelled. The Oxford English Dictionary lists both “JOO-ul-ree” and “JOO-ul-uh-ree,” but says the first one is usual. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language lists only “JOO-ul-ree” as the proper way to say it.

The word, which comes to us from Old French, dates back to the 14th century and was originally spelled “iuelrye” and later “jowalre” in English, according to the OED. “Jewellery” first appeared in the late 18th century, and “jewelry” in the early 19th century.

The British spell the word “jewellery” in commercial usage, the OED says, but sometimes spell it “jewelry” in poetry, as in this example from “Alice du Clos” by Coleridge: “Smit by the sun the mist in glee / Dissolves to lightsome jewelry.”

As for that English actor who mispronounced the word on PBS, he was either mistaken or affected.

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