The Grammarphobia Blog

Chimera obscura

Q: I heard an interview with the historian Louis Henry Gates Jr. the other day and I swear he pronounced the first syllable of “chimera” like the beginning of “chicken.” Is it just me, or what? I must break off now and return to my chi-square calculations.

A: The word “chimera” begins with a “k” sound, as in words like “character,” “chasm,” and “Christian.” The accent is on the second syllable: ki-MIR-uh.

This is the only pronunciation given in standard dictionaries, as well as the Oxford English Dictionary.

The chimera, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was “a fabled fire-breathing monster of Greek mythology, with a lion’s head, a goat’s body, and a serpent’s tail (or according to others with the heads of a lion, a goat, and a serpent).”

The word in Greek means “she-goat,” and the fact that it comes from Greek accounts for its pronunciation.

In Greek writing, the word begins with X (the letter chi), which is pronounced like “k.” In English words that come from Greek, the “ch” letter combination is usually pronounced like “k.”

This is why the words “Christ” and “Christmas,” for example, begin with a “k” sound (for the Greek X).

In translating manuscripts from Greek, medieval scribes often substituted “X” for “Christ” in words like “Christmas” (“Xmas”) and “Christian” (“Xian”), as we wrote in a posting a few years back.

The word “chimera” was first recorded in English (spelled “chymere”) in the Wycliffe Bible of 1382. Back then, it meant the monstrous creature of mythology.

Later, it was used more loosely to mean any grotesque monster or phantasm.

And in the 16th century, the OED says, “chimera” acquired its modern meaning:

“An unreal creature of the imagination, a mere wild fancy; an unfounded conception.”

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