Q: I have a memory of my mother pronouncing “safari” as suh-FAIR-ee instead of suh-FAR-ee. Is this a correct pronunciation? Where does it come from?
A: Either pronunciation of “safari” is correct. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) gives both as standard.
Merriam-Webster’s says the second vowel can be pronounced like the vowel in “mop” or in “ash.” So you can be justified in using either.
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), on the other hand, gives only one pronunciation, with the second vowel pronounced like the broad “a” in “father.”
English borrowed the word “safari” in the 19th century from Swahili, in which it means journey or expedition, the Oxford English Dictionary says.
The Swahili word, Oxford adds, ultimately comes from Arabic, where the noun safar means a journey or tour and the verb safara means to travel, depart, or go on a journey.
In English, “safari” originally meant “a party or caravan undertaking an extensive cross-country expedition on foot for hunting or scientific research, typically in an African country (originally in East Africa),” the OED explains.
Later, the word came to mean other kinds of forays, including “a party travelling, usually in vehicles, into unspoiled or wild areas for tourism or game viewing.” And many extended meanings of the term developed later.
The word was first recorded in English by the explorer Sir Richard F. Burton in the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London in 1859:
“These Safari are neither starved like the trading parties of Wanyamwezi nor pampered like those directed by the Arabs.”
This later example is from an 1871 journal entry by the explorer and missionary David Livingstone: “A safari, under Hassani and Ebed, arrived with news of great mortality by cholera … at Zanzibar.”
A historical note: This was the ailing Dr. Livingstone who had lost contact with the rest of the world and was eventually tracked down by the journalist Henry Morton Stanley after a two-year search. Stanley later claimed to have greeted him with the words “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”
Check out our books about the English language