The Grammarphobia Blog

Shady language

Q: I recently heard a recording in which a doctor pronounces “atropine” as if it were spelled “atropin.” Is this legitimate?

A: Yes, there are two standard pronunciations of the organic compound that eye doctors use in solutions to dilate pupils: AT-ruh-peen and AT-ruh-pin.

In fact, “atropin” was the original spelling of this poisonous compound obtained from belladonna and other related plants. Several standard dictionaries still list that as a variant spelling.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), for example, cites both spellings, with “atropine” pronounced AT-ruh-peen and “atropin” pronounced AT-ruh-pin.

However, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) has only the “atropine” spelling and At-ruh-peen pronunciation.

In addition to being used in solutions to dilate eyes, the naturally occurring alkaloid atropine is used, among other things, in medicine to inhibit muscle spasms.

The earliest example of the word in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the Records of General Science, an 1836 collection of scientific knowledge:

“Atropin may be obtained in a crystalline state by dissolving it in the smallest possible quantity of boiling water.”

The word “atropine” comes from atropa belladonna, the scientific name of the perennial plant that’s also known as deadly nightshade.

English borrowed belladonna from the Italian name for the plant (it comes from the Italian words for “beautiful woman”).

However, the plant’s name is ultimately derived from Atropos, one of the three Greek Fates, according to the OED.

In Greek mythology, Atropos was the Fate responsible for deciding how people died and cutting their threads of life with her shears.

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