Q: When did “mayoral” and “electoral” shift their emphases to may-OR-al and e-lec-TOR-al? These pronunciations make me nuts! Can they be correct?
A: We’ll take these words in alphabetical order, and cite the accepted pronunciations given in the two standard dictionaries of American English that we use most.
“Electoral” is given two pronunciations in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.): four syllables, accented on either the second (ih-LEK-ter-ul) or the third (ee-lek-TOR-ul).
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) gives those two as well as a three-syllable pronunciation accented on the second (ih-LEK-trul).
So you could justify using any of those three pronunciations in American English.
However, the audio pronouncers on the American Heritage and Merriam-Webster websites accent the second of four syllables (ih-LEK-ter-ul), which is the only pronunciation in the British English dictionaries we’ve checked.
Now on to “mayoral,” which can properly be accented on either the first or the second syllable in American English.
Both American Heritage and Merriam-Webster’s give three-syllable pronunciations that accent the first (MAY-er-ul) as well as the second (may-OR-ul).
In addition, Merriam-Webster’s gives a two-syllable pronunciation accented on the first (MER-ul), with the first vowel pronounced like the “e” in “bet.”
As you can see, it would be difficult to mispronounce this word in American English! However, MAY-er-ul is the only pronunciation in the British English dictionaries we’ve checked. And it’s the one in M-W’s online audio pronouncer. AH doesn’t have an audio pronouncer for “mayoral.”
And now, a brief aside for the histories of both.
“Electoral,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, came into English in 1675 and originally referred specifically to the German system of government by Electors.
In the following century, the adjective acquired a more general meaning: “relating to or composed of electors.”
“Mayoral” entered English in the late 17th century with the meaning “relating to a mayor or mayoralty,” says the OED.
The first recorded use is from a letter written in 1699 by Jonathan Swift: “I was at his mayoral feast.”
But back to the recommended pronunciations and the two standard dictionaries we cite.
American Heritage is the more conservative of the two and is slower to accept new pronunciations as they come into use. The dictionary’s fourth edition, for example, had only one pronunciation for “electoral” (ih-LEK-ter-ul).
Merriam-Webster’s casts a wider net, and is likely to be the first to recognize newer pronunciations as standard once they’ve established themselves in common usage.
Keep in mind that English pronunciation is fluid and ever shifting. The pronunciations recognized as standard 50 years ago are not necessarily those of today.
In other words, common usage is what determines standards from generation to generation.
You asked when the pronunciations of “electoral” and “mayoral” shifted. We can’t tell you exactly, but the change in American Heritage from the fourth to the fifth editions suggests that the ee-lek-TOR-ul pronunciation is relatively recent.
Here are the pronunciations that are given as standard in our 1956 copy of Webster’s New International Dictionary (the unabridged second edition):
“mayoral”—MAY-er-ul or MER-ul
Compare those to the pronunciations above in the latest M-W Collegiate. Thus does language change.
[Note: This post was updated on Dec. 19, 2016.]