The Grammarphobia Blog

A sigh is just a sigh

Q: Is there an approved pronunciation for the word “scythe” that sounds like “sigh”?

A: The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and the Oxford English Dictionary give only one pronunciation, with the “th” sounded at the end.

The OED’s pronunciation key renders the vowel sound like that in “buy” and the final consonant sound as a hard “th,” like the one in “bathe.” 

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) lists that pronunciation too, but it also lists a variant that sounds like “sigh.”

M-W gives both pronunciations equal weight, meaning both are equally acceptable.

The dictionary’s acceptance of “sigh” as a pronunciation may be a relatively recent development, however.

Our 1956 copy of Merriam-Webster’s New International Dictionary (the unabridged second edition) doesn’t list it.

As you might expect of such a venerable old tool, “scythe” is a word of great antiquity. The OED’s first citation for its appearance in writing is from about 725.

In Old English, it was spelled something like sithe or sigthi, and its older cousins from other Germanic languages also show evidence of a pronounced “th” or “g” sound at or near the end of the word.

The Latin-influenced spelling with “sc” was a later development, and didn’t become widespread until the 17th century.

The OED notes that the 18th-century lexicographer Samuel Johnson preferred the “etymologically correct spelling sithe.”

But it adds that “his authority has not prevailed against the currency of the spelling with sc, due to erroneous association with L. scindere to cut.”

Getting back to the end of the word, the “th” in “scythe” was indeed pronounced in the 18th and 19th centuries, according to several editions of John Walker’s pronouncing dictionaries (the entries are labeled “SITHE, or SCYTHE”).

In checking a 1791 edition of Walker’s A Critical Pronouncing Dictionary and Expositor of the English Language, though, we found a surprise.

The word “sigh” apparently was sometimes pronounced much like “scythe”!

In a note attached to his entry for “SIGH,” Walker notes that a “very extraordinary pronunciation of this word prevails in London, and, what is more extraordinary, on the Stage.”

He describes this pronunciation as “so different from every other word of the same form as to make it a perfect oddity in the language.”

“This pronunciation approaches to the word scythe,” he adds, “and the only difference is that scythe has the flat aspiration as in this; and sigh the sharp one, as in thin.”  

Walker goes on to condemn this pronunciation as a “palpable contempt of orthography.”

He may have been unaware that in an old British dialect, a verb spelled and pronounced like “sithe” was a variant of “sigh.”

The OED has citations for this use of “sithe” at various periods ranging from about 1275 to 1875.

One example of its use in print comes from William Holloway’s A General Dictionary of Provincialisms (1838): “I knew a clergyman who always read ‘Sithing,’ for ‘sighing of a contrite heart.’ ”

The OED describes this usage as a remnant of a long dead verb, siche, which dated back to the ninth century and also meant “sigh.”

In fact, siche may have been the ancestor of “sigh,” which actually came along later, sometime before 1300.

When siche became obsolete in the 1400s, the OED says, its past tense forms became associated with the newer “sigh” and remained in use.

So what sounded to Walker like a mispronunciation of “sigh” as “sithe” was actually the dying gasp of a much older verb—and one more example of how language changes as time goes by.

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