The Grammarphobia Blog

The SEE-ment pond next to Granny’s still

Q: I was interested (and enlightened) by your recent blog posting about the difference between “cement” and “concrete.” But why no comment on their pronunciations? Both are often mispronounced, with the accent on the wrong syllable.

A:  Your question brings to mind an old sit-com, The Beverly Hillbillies, in which the erstwhile backwoods Clampetts refer to their swimming pool as “the SEE-ment pond.”

It’s likely that most people pronounce the nouns “cement” and “concrete” as sih-MENT (second syllable stressed) and CON-kreet (first syllable stressed). But that’s not the end of the story.

The noun “cement” was originally pronounced SEE-ment back in the 14th century, and some people still say it that way, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The old pronunciation has since been “almost superseded” by sih-MENT, the OED says, because that’s the way the verb is pronounced.

Today, the OED gives both pronunciations as standard, and so does Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), though M-W indicates that SEE-ment is less common.

However, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) gives only one pronunciation, sih-MENT.

The noun “concrete” (the building material) is a relatively recent term, dating only to the 19th century, but the adjective (real, material, etc.) is much older, showing up in the 15th century.

Although the adjective has long been pronounced either CON-kreet or con-KREET, the OED says, the most popular pronunciation today is with the accent on the first syllable.

As for the building material, the dictionary adds, it’s universally pronounced with the accent on the first syllable: CON-kreet. And that’s the only pronunciation given in the OED.

But Merriam-Webster’s and American Heritage give both pronunciations (CON-kreet and con-KREET) for the noun, with no preference for one over the other.

We’re not done yet. American Heritage adds that the first syllable can also be pronounced like “kong.”

The lesson here? English pronunciation is not written in concrete.

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