English English language Pronunciation Usage

Spice craft

Q: BAY-zul or BAZZ-ul? KYOO-min or KUM-in? The first pronunciation in each pair is the one I hear most often today; the second is the pronunciation I grew up with. I’m wondering if cooking shows are responsible for this. Julia Child most certainly pronounced them the way I was taught. This will not change the world or stop global warming. It’s just something I want to get off my chest.

A: The pronunciation of herbs (and the word “herb” itself!) comes up a lot in my email. Many herbs have several acceptable pronunciations, as you’ll find when you look them up.

But even dictionaries can change their stripes. “Cumin” is an interesting example.

My 1956 Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language (2d ed.) says “KUM-in” is the only correct pronunciation. But things appear to have changed in contemporary usage.

Both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) list three pronunciations without comment (meaning all are acceptable): KUM-in; KOO-min; KYOO-min.

As for “basil, American Heritage and Merriam-Webster’s list two acceptable pronunciations: BAZZ-ul (with a short “a” like the one in “jazz”) and BAY-zul (with a long “a” like the one in “bay”).

If you’re curious about “herb,” I’ve written a blog entry on why Britons pronounce the “h” and Americans don’t. The short answer is that the “h” in “herb” wasn’t pronounced on either side of the Atlantic when the Colonies were being settled.

You wondered about cooking shows. I suspect that TV chefs have little influence on how we pronounce herbs – and perhaps less on how we use them!

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