Etymology Pronunciation Usage

Two species of pronunciation

Q: Is “species” pronounced SPEE-shees or SPEE-sees? Or are they just regional variations?

A: Both pronunciations are correct in the US and both are given, without preference, in standard American dictionaries.

If you’re an American, whether you use SPEE-shees or SPEE-sees is more a matter of taste or preference than of regional variation.

However, SPEE-shees is preferred in British English.

This “sh” pronunciation is given in the Oxford English Dictionary and is preferred by Fowler’s Modern English Usage (revised 3rd ed.).

Fowler’s acknowledges the other pronunciation, but inserts the word “prissily” in front of it.

The online Macmillan Dictionary, which has both British and American versions, gives both pronunciations for American readers but only the “sh” version for British readers.

As far as we know, the “sh” version has always been standard English in Britain. The 1831 edition of Walker’s Pronouncing Dictionary, for example, has the following entry:

“Species, spi’shiz, s. A sort, a subdivision of a general term; class of nature, single order of beings; appearance to the senses; representation to the mind; circulating money; simples that have place in a compound.”

The word was borrowed from Latin, in which species means appearance, form, or kind. Its ultimate ancestor is the Latin verb specere (to look).

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says that when it first came into English in the late 1300s, “species” was a classification in logic and meant appearance.

In the 1500s it came to mean sort or kind, and in the early 1600s it was first used in the biological sense, to identify groups of plants and animals.

The final “s” doesn’t mean “species” is a plural, by the way; like “series,” it’s the same in singular and plural.

In fact, the word “specie” is often used mistakenly as a singular form of “species.”

Although the two words come from the same Latin source, “specie” usually refers to money in coins.

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