Q: When I pronounced the verb “err” to rhyme with “hair,” a friend (a retired schoolteacher) corrected me and said it rhymes with “her.” Is she correct?
A: The word “err,” meaning to be in error or make a mistake, has two acceptable pronunciations in American English. It can rhyme with either “her” or “hair.”
If you’re British, however, you don’t have a choice—all the standard British dictionaries we’ve checked list only one pronunciation—the one that rhymes with “her.”
As it turns out, the original pronunciation was AIR. The ER pronunciation, a later development, eventually became dominant and is still regarded as the “traditional” one by many. But in the last half-century or so, AIR has made a comeback.
A note in the online Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary adds some perspective here. Originally, according to M-W, the initial vowel of both “err” and “error” rhymed with AIR.
But over time, the dictionary adds, “err” also developed the ER pronunciation. A similar thing happened with the words “curt,” “word,” “bird,” and “were,” which originally had distinctly different vowel sounds that are now pronounced as ER.
Why did this happen? Because of the presence of “r.” As the dictionary says, “The sound of the letter r often colors a preceding vowel in English.”
In the case of “err,” the note continues, “Commentators have expressed a visceral dislike for the original pronunciation [AIR]; perhaps they believe that once usage has established a new pronunciation for a word there can be no going back.”
But, the editors conclude, “no sound reason prevents us from accepting again the [AIR] pronunciation of err, which is today also the more common variant in American speech.”
Today, you’ll find ER and AIR accepted as equal variants in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), and Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed.), among others.
However, standard British dictionaries (like some older Americans who were brought up in the ER tradition) still regard ER as the only acceptable way to say “err.”
The British editions of the online Macmillan, Cambridge, Oxford, and Collins dictionaries give ER as the only pronunciation. In fact, Macmillan and Cambridge list only ER in their American editions too.
It’s been suggested that the words “error” and “errant” may have helped to reestablish the AIR pronunciation, which appears to have become acceptable to American lexicographers in the last 50 years or so.
Our 1956 printing of the unabridged Merriam-Webster’s New International Dictionary (2nd ed.), known as Web II, has only the ER pronunciation, with the vowel described as sounding like the one in “urn.”
But AIR began appearing in dictionaries in the 1960s, and the unabridged Web III includes both pronunciations.
In the Web III online edition, the AIR pronunciation seems to be preferred. Both pronunciations are listed in the text, but only one, AIR, is given in the audible hyperlink.
The Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage notes that “in current usage” (we presume this means American usage) the AIR pronunciation “preponderates.”
As for its etymology, “err” (like “error,” “erroneous,” “erratic,” “errant,” and others) can be traced to a prehistoric Indo-European root reconstructed as er-, which meant “wandering about,” according to John Atyo’s Dictionary of Word Origins.
(Remember that a “knight errant” was an itinerant or traveling knight, roaming in search of adventure.)
As Ayto notes, “the semantic progression from ‘wandering’ to ‘making mistakes’ is reproduced in several other quite unrelated word groups in the Indo-European language family.”
The prehistoric root, he says, “produced Gothic airzei ‘error,’ Old High German irri ‘astray’ (source of modern German irre ‘angry’), Old English ierre ‘astray,’ and Latin errare ‘wander, make mistakes’—from which, via Old French errer, English got err.”
The word was first recorded in English at the turn of the 14th century, when it meant both to go astray and to make a mistake. Each of those meanings, according to OED citations, appears in Robert Manning of Brunne’s 1303 work Handlyng Synne.
The cousins of “err” appeared later in English writing: “error” (circa 1320), “errant” (c. 1369), “erratic” (c. 1374), and “erroneous” (c. 1400).