The Grammarphobia Blog

Culinary arts

Q: Why is the first syllable of “culinary” pronounced  “cull” in the US? I thought words starting with “cu,” a consonant, and “i” have a “cue” sound: “cuticle,” “cupid,” etc. Is this more Americanization of the English language? It may be ACCEPTED now, but that doesn’t make it CORRECT.

A: In American usage, “culinary” has two acceptable pronunciations—KUL-inary and KYOO-linary, according to standard dictionaries in the US.

This is nothing new, since our 1956 Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language (2nd ed., unabridged) gives the same two pronunciations.

And it’s not an example of “Americanization” either. On the contrary!

In standard British speech, the first syllable is pronounced only one way—KUL. (We consulted the British online editions of the Cambridge, Collins, and Macmillan dictionaries.)

So if anybody introduced the “cue” into “culinary,” it was the Americans, not the British.

It’s true that many words starting with “cu” plus a consonant and “i” are invariably pronounced as if they started with “cue” (as in “cubic”). But this is not universal, since some words don’t fit that pattern.

Another culinary exception is “cumin,” which we’ve written about before on our blog.

Until fairly recently, as we say in that post, KUM-in was regarded as the only correct pronunciation of “cumin” in American English

Sometime in the latter half of the 20th century, new pronunciations became accepted in the US. Today it can be pronounced KUM-in, KOO-min, or KYOO-min.

When we say that a variant spelling or pronunciation is “accepted,” that means it’s correct in the eyes of lexicographers. In other words, it’s standard English.

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