English language

Schismatic beliefs

[An updated and expanded post about “schism” appeared on June 29, 2011.]

Q: I was a radio announcer for many years and raised by a very Victorian mother who insisted on proper speech. With that in mind: “Schism” is pronounced “SIZ-em,” not “SKIZ-em,” or “SHIZ-em” (as I thought I heard you say on WNYC).

A: Thanks for writing, but I’m afraid that my reply will disappoint you. The pronunciation of “schism” has evolved in the opinion of lexicographers.

The standard pronunciations for “schism,” according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), currently are (1) SIZ-em, (2) SKIZ-em, and (3) SHIZ-em, with the “i” in the first syllable pronounced as in “sit.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) differs, listing only two acceptable pronunciations, in this order: (1) SKIZ-em, and (2) SIZ-em.

As for me, I usually say SKIZ-em.

The word was originally spelled “scisme” and was traditionally pronounced your way: SIZ-em. But in the 16th century, it was re-spelled with the initial letters “sch” to conform with its Latin and Greek roots.

From this new spelling, according to an informative American Heritage pronunciation note, arose the SKIZ-em pronunciation.

“Long regarded as incorrect, it became so common in both British and American English that it gained acceptability as a standard variant,” the dictionary says. “Evidence indicates, however, that it is now the preferred pronunciation, at least in American English.”

Sorry about that, and I hope you’ll keep listening!

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