The Grammarphobia Blog

An arch etymology

Q: The other day I heard a woman on WNYC pronounce “archipelago” as ARCH-uh-puh-LAH-go—the ARCH sounded like the architectural structure. Is there something I don’t know or should she modify her pronunciation?

A: As traditionally pronounced, the first four letters of “archipelago” end in a “k” sound (as in “architect”), not in a sibilant sound (as in “archbishop”).

This generally accepted pronunciation (ar-kuh-PEL-uh-go) is the only one given in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and almost every other standard dictionary.

The Oxford English Dictionary also gives a “k” pronunciation.

Usage guides like Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.) and Fowler’s Modern English Usage (revised 3rd ed.) agree, insisting on the “k” pronunciation.

So the “authorities” are practically unanimous.

But a mistaken pronunciation of this word has apparently begun to influence some lexicographers. This isn’t unusual; in fact, it’s one way in which usage changes.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) now lists a variant pronunciation in which the “ch” sounds as it does in “church.” Merriam-Webster’s also included this variant in its previous edition, the 10th, published in 2001.

As far as we can tell, Merriam-Webster’s is the only standard dictionary that includes this pronunciation. And until it becomes more widely accepted, we can’t recommend using it.

How did the mispronunciation creep in? Probably because of confusion between the prefix “arch-” and the noun “arch,” or because of confusion among the different forms of the prefix.

In English, we have several forms of this prefix (“arch-” and “archi-” and “arche-”), all borrowed from Greek (arkh-, arkhi-, arkhe-) and meaning principal or leading or beginning.

In many cases, the prefix is pronounced with a hard “k” sound, as it would be in Greek: ARK, AR-kee, AR-kay, and so on.

The hard sound appears in words like “archeology” (beginning history), “archaic” (from the beginning), “architect” (chief builder), “archangel” (leading angel), “archetype” (beginning model), and “architrave” (the main beam that rests on a column).

In other cases, “arch-” has a soft “ch” sound, as in compounds like “archbishop,” “archduke,” and “archdiocese.”

This is the prefix that later became an adjective and now appears (sometimes hyphenated) in compounds like “archenemy,” “archconservative,” “archrival,” etc.

The only compound of this kind that doesn’t have a soft “ch” sound is “archangel.” Because of the following “a” in “angel,” the OED explains, “the prefix in this word remained hard (arc-, ark-) in all the Romance languages.”

The word “archipelago” belongs to the first category—words traditionally pronounced with a hard “k” sound. It has quite a history.

Today an “archipelago” is a group of islands or a body of water studded with islands. But when the Venetians coined the word arcipelago in the mid-13th century, it was a term for the Aegean Sea.

The Italians borrowed the Greek prefix arkhi to form the compound word, which literally means principal gulf or pool. To the Venetians, the Aegean was the queen of oceans.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins has an interesting historical note about the word:

“The term ‘chief sea’ identified the Aegean, as contrasted with all the smaller lagoons, lakes, and inlets to which the word pélagos was also applied. An ‘Englished’ form of the word, Arch-sea, was in use in the 17th century, and in sailors’ jargon it was often abbreviated to Arches.”

Ayto gives this citation from the diplomat Sir Thomas Roe’s Negotiations (1626): “An island called Augustos near Paros, in the Arches.”

He goes on to say that because the Aegean has many islands, the word “archipelago” gradually came to mean “large group of islands.”

In Italian, words with the Greek arkhi or arkhe prefix are spelled with arci or arce, and the “c” is pronounced with a sibilant “ch” sound. So the “c” in the Italian arcipelago would be pronounced like the “ch” in the English word “church” 

When the word came into English, it was spelled “archpelago” or “archipelago,” and pronounced in the Greek manner with a “k” sound.

But there are a couple of “arches” we haven’t explained yet.

The adjective “arch” that’s used as a separate word—meaning crafty or waggish or saucy—developed in the 17th century, the OED says.

It got its meaning through association with such phrases as “arch-rogue” and “arch-knave,” even though the “arch” part originally meant “preeminent.”

And finally we come to the noun “arch,” meaning a curved structure.

It comes from the Latin arcus, meaning a curve or bow. This is the Latin ancestor of “archer” and “archery” (so named for the curve of the bow), as well as “arrow” (so named not because of the curve of its flight, but because it’s shot from a bow).

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