The Grammarphobia Blog

The iron age

Q: Why is “iron” pronounced EYE-urn, not EYE-run? Also, is “iron” related to “irony”?

A: I’ll answer the easy part first. No, the word for the metallic element isn’t related to the word for saying one thing and meaning another.

“Iron,” which the Oxford English Dictionary describes as the “most abundant and useful” metal, has roots in Old Frisian (isern), Old Saxon (isarn), Old Norse (isarn), and many other ancient Germanic languages, including Old English.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins suggests that it ultimately comes from the prehistoric Celtic isarnon, which may in turn be related to the Latin aes (bronze) and the Sanskrit isira (strong).

“Iron,” spelled isern when it first entered Old English around the year 700, had all sorts of spellings (isen, ysen, iren, irin, yrin, yron, and so on) before settling down in the 17th century to its present form.

Why did the letter “r” replace the “s” seen in the early spellings of “iron”? The OED says this apparently began in poetry and later gained wider acceptance. Interestingly, the “s” has survived in the modern German word for iron: eisen.

As for “irony,” it’s derived (via the Latin ironia) from eironeia, a Greek term for feigned ignorance. It first appeared in English in the early 16th century in the works of Thomas More, who gave as an example of “ironye” the description of a “good sonne” as a “noughty lad.”

Finally, why do we pronounce “iron” as EYE-urn, not EYE-run?

Well, I can’t give you a definite answer, but the OED suggests that the present pronunciation of “iron” evolved after the “diphthongation” of the vowel “i.”

As modern English developed, speakers began pronouncing the long “i” in words like “bite” and “hide” and “wise” as a diphthong, a spoken sound that glides from one vowel to another.

The linguist and grammarian Otto Jespersen, who first studied the evolution of “i” and other vowel sounds, called this development “the Great Vowel Shift.”

In his book Essentials of English Grammar (1933), Jespersen described the vowel changes as the “greatest revolution that has taken place in the phonetic system of English.” He said the changes began in the 14th century, but other scholars have given both earlier and later dates.

Linguists disagree about what caused the changes in pronunciation. Theories have ranged from the impact on language of mass immigration after the Black Death to a linguistic backlash against England’s French-speaking Norman rulers.

I haven’t seen any phonological studies dealing specifically with the pronunciation of “iron,” but my guess is that English speakers simply found it easier to say EYE-urn than EYE-run.

Perhaps that’s also why we have EYE-ur sounds in so many other common English words: “buyer,” “fire,” “liar,” “mire,” “tire,” “wire,” and so on.

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