The Grammarphobia Blog

Sound bites: “envelop” vs. “envelope”

Q: Why do we have a choice in pronouncing the noun “envelope” while the verb “envelop” is so unforgiving?

A: We touched briefly on the “envelop/envelope” issue in a recent posting about heteronyms, words with identical spellings but different pronunciations and meanings.

As we said in that posting, some identically spelled words can be either verbs or nouns, depending on how they’re pronounced. For example, “record” (accented on the second syllable) is a verb, while “record” (accented on the first) is a noun.

Similarly, “conflict” (accented on the second syllable) is a verb, while “conflict” (accented on the first) is a noun. Some other words that follow this pattern include “permit,” “extract,” “addict,” “combat,” “compound,” “conduct,” “incense,” “insult,” “present,” “produce,” and “subject.”

But occasionally a spelling will change with a move in the stressed syllable, and this is what happened with the verb “envelop” (accented on the second syllable) and the noun “envelope” (accented on the first).

Here’s a little history.

The verb, “envelop” (from the Old French envoluper), came into English first.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation is from Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Pardoner’s Tale” (1386): “For he is most envoliped in synne.”

The noun (from the Modern French French enveloppe) didn’t appear until the early 1700s.

The OED has this early citation from a memoir by Bishop Gilbert Burnet, written sometime before 1715:

“A letter from the King of Spain was given to his daughter by the Spanish Ambassador, and she tore the envelope, and let it fall.”

In modern usage, the verb is always spelled “envelop” and stressed on the second syllable (en-VEH-lup). Rhythmically, it’s similar to the verb “develop.”

And the noun is always spelled “envelope” and stressed on the first syllable (EN-vuh-lope or AWN-vuh-lope). The only variation is in the vowel sound of the first syllable, and both are accepted as standard English.

Why, you ask, do we have one pronunciation for the verb and two for the noun?

Well, the noun entered English in the 18th century, when many educated English speakers favored French pronunciations for words derived from French.

While the French-sounding AWN pronunciation isn’t wrong, it’s hard to justify.

As the OED says, “this pronunciation, or rather some awkward attempt at it … is still very frequently heard, though there is no good reason for giving a foreign sound to a word which no one regards as alien, and which has been anglicized in spelling for nearly 200 years.”

And as Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) notes, the figure is more like 300 years by now, “plenty of time for it to become completely anglicized.”

Finally, if you’d like to read about an “envelope” that’s pushed, not posted, we had a posting a couple of years ago about “pushing the envelope.”

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