Q: In your blog item about the word “graffiti,” you say it should be treated as a singular noun, like “data.” So, how is “data” pronounced? I’m presuming it’s DAY-tuh, but I’ve heard others say DA-tuh. On a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, Commander Data (an android) corrects the ship’s new doctor when she calls him DA-tuh instead of DAY-tuh.
A: It’s hard to get this one wrong, though Commander Data had every right to insist that Dr. Pulaski pronounce his name the way he wanted.
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) gives three standard pronunciations: DAY-tuh, DA-tuh (the first “a” as in “cat”), and DAH-tuh. There’s no indication that any of them is more common than the others.
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) has the same three pronunciations in the same order, though it says the last one (DAH-tuh) is heard less frequently than the other two.
The Oxford English Dictionary, however, gives four pronunciations: two for British English and two for American English.
The British pronunciations are DAY-tuh—the one preferred by Commander Data—and DAH-tuh (the first vowel as in “barn” and “palm”).
The American pronunciations, according to Oxford, are DA-duh (the first vowel as in “pat”) and DAY-duh. (Where the OED got the impression that Americans use a “d” sound here instead of “t” is a mystery to us.)
In case you’re interested, the OED has dozens of Star Trek citations. The earliest published reference is from The Making of Star Trek, the 1968 book by Stephen E. Whitfield and Gene Roddenberry.
The most recent citation is from an Oct. 15, 2002, review of the video game Gex in the New York Times. The game, the reviewer says, mimics everyone from Austin Powers, James Bond, and Maxwell Smart to “the entire cast of Star Trek and the Star Wars trilogy.”
[Note: This post was updated on August 25, 2015, to reflect changes in dictionary entries.]