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Sez who?

Q: I hear BBC correspondents pronounce “says” with a long “a” to rhyme with “prays.” Why do Americans pronounce it like “sez” instead of like “pays,” “lays,” and other “ays” word that come to mind. Is it just a quirk of English?

A: The third-person singular of the verb “say” should be pronounced “sez” on both sides of the Atlantic, according to American and British dictionaries. But pompous broadcasting twits, especially across the pond, have never let standard pronunciations get in the way of on-air affectations.

A lot of people, especially foreigners, have wondered why we pronounce “says” to rhyme with the candy Pez rather than with “lays” or “prays” or “stays.” In fact, I recently came across an exchange of letters on the subject in the New York Times from 1906.

Unfortunately, I haven’t found a definitive explanation of the phenomenon. I think this may be one more example of, as you put it, “a quirk of English.”

The Oxford English Dictionary has published references for the word dating back to around 971. The spellings have been all over the place since then: “seit,” “seithe,” “seythe,” “seis,” “sais,” “saise,” “sayes,” “sayis,” and “says,” among many others. I suspect that the pronunciations were all over the place too.

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