The Grammarphobia Blog

Why Oynest has an erl can

Q: When I grew up in Brooklyn, NY, people would say “earl” when they meant “oil,” or “turlet” when meaning “toilet.” I don’t hear it much anymore, except among older folks, but I’m curious about where this switching of “oi” and “er” comes from.

A: The pronunciation of “er” as “oi”—and the reverse, with “oi” pronounced as “er”—has long been associated with New York.

In this speech pattern, the sounds “er” and “oi” are swapped, so a sentence like “My girl likes oysters” becomes “My goil likes ersters.” (Or as one observer noted in the 1920s, “Ernest has an oil can” sounds like “Oynest has an erl can.”)

But this isn’t heard as much today as it was in the past. These days, as you point out, it’s used mostly by the elderly, and of course by TV and movie actors supposedly playing hard-boiled New Yorkers.

As Allan Metcalf writes in his book How We Talk: American Regional English Today (2000), “These famous pronunciations—‘oi’ where the rest of the country has ‘er’ and vice versa—have largely been shamed out of existence.”

Your question about where this pronunciation comes from will have to remain unanswered (at least by us). None of our research turned up any authoritative answers for the why or the how.

But it probably has something to do with all the dialects that once combined to make up “New Yorkese” more than a century ago. Here’s how Sam Roberts described it in the New York Times in 2010:

“The New York accent is a distinctive amalgam of Irish, German, Yiddish and Italian—now infused with black and Hispanic dialects and a Caribbean lilt—that was identified at least as far back as the early 19th century.”

Perhaps this kind of talk was “shamed out of existence” (to use Metcalf’s phrase) by the schoolteachers of yesteryear.

A 1921 article in The English Journal, published by the National Council of Teachers of English, provided teachers with a checklist of “gross mispronunciations” common in schools.

These “wrong sounds, generally rated ‘vulgar,’ ” included “erl” (for oil) and “goil” (for girl).

The article didn’t note where such mispronunciations were likely to occur, claiming they were “generally recognized as apparently universal difficulties.” (The author added, in a rather schoolmarmish tone, that attention was also needed for “such other matters as undesirable posture in class recitations.”)

However, most of us think of New York when we hear pronunciations like those.

A vowel sound written as “er,” “ur,” or “ir” is spoken as the diphthong “oi” (a diphthong is one vowel sound gliding into another). And vice versa—the diphthong written as “oi” is spoken like “er.”

Frank H. Vizetelly, writing in The Homiletic Review in 1922, said: “Only a few years ago the Board of Education of the City of New York issued a circular directing attention to the more common errors of pronunciation among high-school pupils.”

The circular, he wrote, paid particular attention to “the sounds heard in ‘join,’ ‘oil,’ ‘oyster,’ ‘third,’ ‘girl,’ ‘turn,’ and ‘lurch.’ ”

The school board said “that ‘oi’ was far too frequently rendered ‘er,’ and that ‘ir’ and ‘ur’ were far too often pronounced ‘oi.’” So the words “ ‘oil,’ ‘join,’ ‘oyster’ became ‘earl,’ ‘jern,’ ‘erster,’ while ‘third,’ ‘girl,’ ‘turn,’ and ‘lurch’ became ‘thoid,’ ‘goil,’ ‘toin,’ and ‘loich.’ ”

(Are we reminded here of Damon Runyon’s guys and dolls? Soitanly!)

Apparently this speech pattern was still heard in the mid-20th century. In a 1940 article in the journal American Speech, entitled “‘Curl’ and ‘Coil’ in New York City,” the Columbia University linguist Allan Forbes Hubbell discussed this “oi”/“er” swapping and some of the myths associated with it.

“The diphthongal form, despite the efforts of the schools and despite the ridicule to which it has been subjected, is employed by a majority of New York’s seven-and-a-half millions,” Hubbell writes.

“I am inclined to believe that it was once general in this area, and it is today by no means confined to the level of uncultivated speech, but is often found in the speech of the educated, especially among older people.”

But we shouldn’t overgeneralize here. As Hubbell adds, “The exact quality of the diphthong is somewhat variable,” so it doesn’t sound identical from group to group. He describes three or four different varieties.

In fact, to spell this diphthong as “oi” is perhaps a slight exaggeration. As Metcalf describes it in his book, “words like girl and learn are pronounced something like ‘guh-il’ and ‘luh-een.’ ”

And the substitution of this diphthong doesn’t happen with all “er,” “ir,” and “ur”-spelled words. For example, Hubbell writes, some variation of the diphthong might be heard in words like “first,” “third,” and “work,” but not in “stir” or “fur.”

Similarly, not all words spelled with “oi” or “oy” come out sounding like “er,” he writes. “In the speech of certain less-educated New Yorkers,” Hubbell says, these words sound much as they do in standard pronunciation.

Words spelled with “oi” or “oy” that stay pretty much the same, Hubbell says, include “all words in which the diphthong is final as, for example, toy, boy, enjoy, destroy, annoy, and the derivatives of such words,” as well as “loyal, royal; poise, noise; exploit, loiter, goiter.”

The “oi”- or “oy”-spelled words in which these same New Yorkers might use “an r-colored vowel or a diphthong whose first element is r-colored,” Hubbell writes, include “boil, toil, broil, foil, soil, spoil, oil, toilet; coin, join, loin; point, appoint, disappoint, joint, ointment; choice, rejoice, voice, Rolls-Royce; hoist, joist, moist, oyster, boisterous; void, avoid; poison, voyage.”

Again, however, we should emphasize that not all New Yorkers spoke extreme “New Yorkese,” even when Hubbell was writing. As he says, “Metropolitan speech is of course not uniform, but differs widely on different social levels.”

And 60 years later, as Metcalf writes, the “oi”/”er” swapping is fading away (though movie and TV producers are doing their best to keep it alive).

We can’t resist ending this post with something we found on Barry Popik’s “Big Apple” website. It’s from the chorus of a song written in the mid-1940s by Bobby Gregory (the last line is its title).

She wears a tight skoit right up to her knees. Instead of poifume she wears Limboiger cheese. Who leaves me limp when she gives me a squeeze? Moitle from Toidy Toid and Toid.

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