The Grammarphobia Blog

A sign of approval

Q: During your last appearance on the Leonard Lopate Show, a caller corrected Leonard’s pronunciation of “imprimatur” (im-PRI-muh-tur). Not knowing what the word meant, I looked it up and found (in my Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary), that Leonard’s version was one of three acceptable pronunciations. Since this was near the end of the show, I was unable to call.

A: You’re right about Merriam-Webster’s. My 11th edition lists these three pronunciations: im-pri-MAH-tur, im-PRI-muh-tur, and im-PRI-muh-tyur.

But The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) lists only two acceptable pronunciations, im-pri-MAH-tur and im-pri-MAY-tur.

The Oxford English Dictionary has only one: im-pri-MAY-tuh. And the other British reference I consult the most, Longman’s Dictionary of Contemporary English, has two – im-pri-MAH-tuh and im-pri-MAY-tuh (it says Americans may pronounce the “r” at the end).

The score: 3-to-1 against im-PRI-muh-tur. But I’d go easy on Leonard, since M-W gives his version its imprimatur.

The word “imprimatur,” which means “let it be printed” in Latin, entered English in the 17th century, according to the OED. It comes from the verb imprimere (to press or imprint).

At first, an “imprimatur” was an official license to print a book. But by the end of the 17th century, it was being used figuratively for any sign of approval.

Here’s an example from a 1672 pamphlet by the poet-satirist Andrew Marvell: “As things of Buffoonery do commonly, they carry with them their own Imprimatur.”

The use of the word in a publishing sense is still around, but it’s primarily seen in the Roman Catholic Church, where an “imprimatur” is a declaration that a book is doctrinally or morally acceptable to be read by the Catholic faithful.

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