Etymology Pronunciation

Franglais speaking

Q: I am a physician who frequently attends professional meetings where the first syllable of “centimeter” is often pronounced SAWN as opposed to SEN. The former strikes me as the old syndrome of Frenchifying a word that’s English despite its Gallic origin. Am I correct?

A: Yes, you’re correct.

The word “centimeter” entered English two hundred years ago as a borrowing from the French centimètre. It means one-hundredth of a meter, and the roots of the French word are centi (a prefix for “hundred”) and mètre (“meter”).

However, “centimeter” is now an English word. There’s no reason to pronounce it as if it were foreign. We don’t pronounce “toilet” as twa-LAY.

Besides, the words “cent” and “meter” entered English many centuries before “centimeter” was adopted from French in 1801, so they were already long familiar to English speakers.

The word “cent,” ultimately from the Latin centum, was used in English to mean “hundred” before the year 1400, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. And the derivative “percent” entered the language in the 1500s.

“Meter” has been an English word since at least as far back as the ninth century, according to the OED.

It comes partly from the Latin metrum (meaning poetic meter or an object used for measuring), and partly from the Greek metron (poetic meter, measure, rule, length, size).

Obviously, there was never any reason for “centimeter” to retain a French pronunciation. 

We’ve written before about the tendency of some English speakers to impose French (and even faux-French) pronunciations on what are now firmly established English words.

Take “niche,” for instance. We wrote a blog item last year about the relatively recent appearance of the Frenchified NEESH pronunciation in English.

Our book Origins of the Specious has a whole chapter on fractured French, with many examples of the peculiar lexical relations between English and French.

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