The Grammarphobia Blog

Heat treatment

Q: I’ve lived in Astoria, Queens, all my life—I was born there—and I pronounce “radiator” with a short “a” like the one in “fad.” I was well into my teens when I realized this wasn’t the common pronunciation. (I never made the connection between “radiate” and “radiator.”) I’ve been told that my pronunciation is unique to Queens. Is this true?

A: No, the pronunciation of “radiator” as RAH-dee-ay-ter (rhymes with “gladiator”) is not unique to Queens.

It’s not very common, though. Stewart (an ex-New Yorker) is familiar with it, while Pat (an ex-Iowan) can’t remember ever hearing it.

We’ve checked a half-dozen dictionaries and all of them say the standard American pronunciation is RAY-dee-ay-ter. The British pronounce it pretty much the same way, though they tend to drop the final “r.”

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) is the only standard dictionary we’ve found that mentions the RAH-dee-ay-ter pronunciation, but M-W describes it as dialect that’s not considered standard.

So where is your pronunciation of “radiator” heard aside from the New York City borough of Queens?

The Dictionary of American Regional English says the RAH pronunciation of the first syllable is especially heard in Pennsylvania.

Contributors to DARE have reported hearing it in Philadelphia, Harrisburg, and various areas in southeastern and central southern Pennsylvania.

DARE cites this excerpt from a 1971 letter to the Today Show: “I have found a very reliable indicator of someone from the Philadelphia area is how a person pronounces the first ‘a’ in radiator as though it were the first ‘a’ in radical.”

And what does DARE have to tell us about the pronunciation in Queens?

The dictionary’s most recent citation, from 2001, says: “Radiator—NYC and environs, the 1st a is pronounced as in fat.”

In case you’re curious, the noun “radiator” showed up in English in the early 1800s, but the first citations used the word in the sense of material (like glass or metal) that “radiates heat, light, or any other form of energy.”

The word, which ultimately comes from the Latin radiare (to emit rays or to shine), didn’t come to mean a device for heating a room until 1838, according to citations in the OED.

The first example of this usage, from the Daily Whig & Courier in Bangor, Maine, refers to “an apparatus called a radiator, which … has an effect in absorbing and distributing the heat equal to that of a very long pipe.”

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