The Grammarphobia Blog

Exquisite expressions

Q: I’ve tried to call you on the air about the word “exquisite,” but I haven’t been able to get through. When I was in school 30 years ago, I was taught that the first syllable should be stressed. These days most people seem to stress the second. Am I wrong? Have things changed? Should I adapt?

A: My old Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language (2d ed.), which goes back half a century, lists only one correct pronunciation, with the stress on the first syllable.

Times have changed, however. Both pronunciations are correct these days. Some modern dictionaries list one first and some the other, but the order means little, if anything.

The initial pronunciation in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) stresses the first syllable, while the initial choice in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) stresses the second.

The word “exquisite,” which dates from the 15th century, can be traced to the Latin exquirere (to search out). In the early days, it meant carefully chosen, but by the 16th century the meaning was pretty much the same as it is now – beautiful, excellent, elaborate, or intense (as in exquisite pain or pleasure).

Buy Pat’s books at a local store or Amazon.com.