The Grammarphobia Blog

Say it again!

Q: It drives me bonkers when my friends from the Delaware area, where I went to school, pronounce “Mary” and “Merry,” “Carrie” and “Kerry,” and “Erin” and “Aaron” the same way. Please respond with an explanation that I can forward to them, backing my assertion that these are different-sounding words!

A: Sorry, but I can’t give you a simple yes or no answer about the right way to pronounce those pairs.

In some regions of the US, they’re pronounced alike, and in other regions, they’re similar but not quite the same. In the Midwest, where I hail from, all these pairs sound just alike.

What do dictionaries say? Well, many dictionaries don’t have entries for names, and the ones that do aren’t always definitive.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) agrees with you about “Mary” and ”Merry,” for example, but it accepts two pronunciations for “Aaron,” including one that’s very much like its pronunciation of “Erin.”

Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed.), on the other hand, accepts two pronunciations for “Mary,” including one that’s identical with its pronunciation for “Merry.” But it agrees with you about “Carrie” and “Kerry.”

Interestingly, many people (especially those on baby-name discussion sites) think that these similar-sounding pairs are the same names spelled differently, or that they’re male and female versions of the same names. Not so!

“Mary” is a Biblical name, usually a reference to the mother of Jesus. The Oxford English Dictionary says it can probably be traced to the Hebrew “Miryam,” which in turn may have its origin in an ancient Amorite word meaning “gift (of God).” But “Merry” is of Old English origin and comes from the adjective meaning festive or full or gaiety.

“Carrie” is commonly a pet name for “Caroline,” while “Kerry” is a cross-gender name that was originally a place name – there are Kerrys in both southwest Ireland and the Welsh border country.

“Erin” (Irish Gaelic for “peace”) is a poetic name for Ireland; it’s been used for both boys and girls. “Aaron” is another Biblical name; the most famous “Aaron” (from the Hebrew for “enlightened”) was a Jewish patriarch, the elder brother of Moses.

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