The Grammarphobia Blog

A room with a view

Q: Let’s talk about pronunciation: ga-ZEE-bo or GAZE-bo, what do you think? Anxious to hear your thoughts on this.

A: The verb “gaze” may have something to do with the origin of “gazebo,” but not with its pronunciation. The word “gazebo” has three syllables, not two.

It can be pronounced as ga-ZEE-bo or ga-ZAY-bo, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

The Oxford English Dictionary, however, gives only one pronunciation: ga-ZEE-bo.

The OED’s earliest citation for the word is from a 1752 publication about the design of Chinese bridges, temples, arches, and so on. One example was described as “The Elevation of a Chinese Tower or Gazebo.”

But an enterprising word sleuth, Stephen Goranson, recently discovered an earlier citation, from 1741.

Writing on the American Dialect Society’s Linguist List, Goranson said he found the word in a poem by Wetenhall Wilkes. We’ll give an excerpt:

“Unto the painful summit of this height / A gay Gazebo does our Steps invite. / From this, when favour’d with a Cloudless Day, / We fourteen Counties all around survey. / Th’ increasing prospect tires the wandring Eyes: / Hills peep o’er Hills, and mix with distant Skies.”

In modern usage, a gazebo is a freestanding, roofed structure that’s generally open on the sides, similar to a summerhouse or belvedere.

But in the 18th and 19th centuries, a gazebo could also be a part of a house, like a projecting window or balcony, or a roof turret affording distant views.

Where did the word come from? One common theory is that “gazebo” is a quasi-Latin coinage. As the OED says, it’s “commonly explained as a humorous formation” on the verb “gaze.”

According to this theory, “gazebo” would be translated as “I shall gaze,” mimicking first-person future-tense Latin verbs ending in -bo, like videbo (“I shall see”), lavabo (“I shall wash”), placebo (“I shall please”), and so on.

But there’s another theory about the origin of “gazebo,” and that “Chinese Tower” mentioned above is a clue. Some of the early quotations, according to the OED, “suggest that it may possibly be a corruption of some oriental word.”

Ultimately, however, the true origin remains a mystery.

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