The Grammarphobia Blog

Is he hearing things?

Q: As a teacher of English, speech, and theater, I have a good ear for pronunciation. For years I have heard people, often media announcers, pronounce the word “episode” as if it were “effisode.” My wife says I’m hearing things. Is this an acceptable pronunciation?

A: I’ve never come across this weird pronunciation (“effisode”). At any rate, it’s not an acceptable pronunciation of the word “episode.”

I did some etymological detective work to see whether it has ever been standard English to pronounce the “p” of “episode” with an “f” sound. The answer: nope!

We borrowed the word in the 17th century from the French épisode, which was borrowed in turn from the Greek epeisodion, meaning an addition, according to The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology.

In ancient times, an episod was a commentary (i.e., an addition) between two songs by the chorus in a Greek tragedy.

The first published reference for the word in the Oxford English Dictionary, dating from 1678, refers to the “episods” in a Greek tragedy, but the term was soon being used for all kinds of digressions.

For example, Oliver Goldsmith, in his comic play She Stoops to Conquer (1773), refers to “the terrors of a formal courtship, together with the episode of aunts, grandmothers and cousins.”

The use of “episode” in the modern sense of a film, radio, or TV installment dates from 1915, when the magazine Motion Picture World referred to “the second episode” of A Voice From the Wilderness.

As far as I can tell, the “p” sound was a “p” sound from ancient to modern times. Maybe your wife is right and you are hearing things! In case you’re not, though, I’ll keep my ears open and let you know if I hear anything.

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