The Grammarphobia Blog

The well-tempered prelude

Q: As a musician, I’m truly bugged when I hear sophisticated music hosts on NPR pronounce “prelude” as PREL-yude. The correct pronunciation should be PRAY-lood. The “yude” version is the fingernails on the blackboard for me!

A: I’m very sorry to hear that NPR music hosts are using the pretentious (to my ear) pronunciation of “prelude” as PREL-yude. I’m not surprised, though, since dictionaries accept that pronunciation. EEK!

In fact, the first pronunciations in both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) are “yude” versions.

Well, I don’t care what the dictionaries say. Anybody who says PREL-yude went to an elocution school for twits.

The English word “prelude,” which was borrowed directly from the French prélude in the 16th century, refers to a musical or other introduction. It ultimately comes from the Latin praeludere (to play before): this combines the prefix prae (before) and ludere (to play).

According to my old unabridged Webster’s New International Dictionary (2nd ed.) from 1954, the second syllable was originally pronounced “lood” (yes, including the letter l). The pronunciation PREL-yude is a case of sloppy syllabification, if you ask me.

In case you’re interested, the Oxford English Dictionary‘s first published reference for the word “prelude” is in a 1548 English translation of Erasmus’s writings on the Gospel of Mark: “They shall only be preludes of the ende [that] is to come.”

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