The Grammarphobia Blog

Transient labors

Q: You mentioned on the radio the other day that some dictionaries will list just about any possible pronunciation of a word. Thanks for sharing that. I was going to call and ask about the pronunciation of “transient,” but I didn’t want my co-workers to recognize me! I can be a stickler for pronunciation.

A: In case you’re interested, “transient” has THREE pronunciations in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), FIVE in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), and SIX in the Oxford English Dictionary, all of them considered standard English.

The sibilant can be pronounced as “ss” or “sh” or “zh” or “zz” or “j,” and the vowels can vary too. As for the “i,” it’s sometimes silent, sometimes not. That is, “transient” is sometimes three syllables and sometimes two. It would be hard to mispronounce it!

The adjective (meaning temporary, fleeting, or passing by) is quite old, dating from 1607, according to the OED. The noun (something passing or transitory) is old, too, going back to 1652.

The use of the noun to refer to a migrant worker, a brief guest, or another passer-by is relatively recent. The first published reference for this usage in the OED dates from 1880: “My grandmother held these transients in low esteem.”

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