[Note: This post was updated on Oct. 29, 2021.]
Q: When I pronounced the verb “err” to rhyme with “hair,” a friend (a retired schoolteacher) corrected me and said it rhymes with “her.” Is she correct?
A: No, she erred in “correcting” you. The verb “err,” meaning to be in error or make a mistake, has two pronunciations in standard American English, and most Americans prefer yours.
You can hear both at Merriam-Webster.com’s entry for “err,” where the first pronunciation sounds like AIR and the second like UR. (The dictionary’s big sister, the online Merriam-Webster Unabridged, on the other hand, gives both pronunciations in its text, but offers only one, AIR, at its audible “pronouncer.”)
Eight of the ten standard American and British dictionaries that we regularly consult give both pronunciations. Three of the UK dictionaries indicate that preferences are for AIR in American English and UR in British English.
Americans who use the UR version, by the way, pronounce it as if it rhymed with “her.” However, British speakers drop the “r” and sound only the vowel, as if they were saying “uh” or /ə/, a sound like the “a” in “ago.”
The Oxford English Dictionary, in fact, gives all three pronunciations: UR, AIR, and /ə/.
As it turns out, the original pronunciation sounded like AIR. The UR pronunciation, a later development, eventually became dominant and is still regarded as the “traditional” one by many. But in the last half-century or so, AIR has made a comeback.
Merriam-Webster Unabridged adds some perspective on this in a note. Originally, it says, the initial vowel of the word “err,” as with “error,” was like the one in AIR.
But over time, the dictionary adds, the word also developed the UR pronunciation. A similar thing happened with the words “curt,” “word,” “bird,” and “were,” which originally had distinctly different vowel sounds that are now pronounced as UR.
Why did this happen? Because of the presence of “r.” As the dictionary says, “The sound of the letter r often colors a preceding vowel in English.”
In the case of “err,” the note continues, “Commentators have expressed a visceral dislike for the original pronunciation [AIR]; perhaps they believe that once usage has established a new pronunciation for a word there can be no going back.”
But, the editors conclude, “no sound reason prevents us from accepting again the [AIR] pronunciation of err, which is today also the more common variant in American speech.”
As we said, today most standard dictionaries accept both AIR and UR as equal variants. Two British dictionaries (like some older Americans who were brought up in the UR tradition) still regard UR or /ə/ as the only acceptable way to say the word “err.”
It’s been suggested that the words “error” and “errant” may have helped to reestablish the AIR pronunciation, which appears to have become acceptable to American lexicographers in the last 50 years or so.
Our 1956 printing of the unabridged Merriam-Webster’s New International Dictionary (2nd ed.), known as Web II, has only the UR pronunciation, with the vowel described as sounding like the one in “urn.”
But AIR began appearing in dictionaries in the 1960s, and now, as we mentioned above, the Unabridged has both but offers only the AIR version on a pronouncer icon.
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage notes that “in current usage” (we presume this means American usage) the AIR pronunciation “preponderates.”
As for its etymology, “err” (like “error,” “erroneous,” “erratic,” “errant,” and others) can be traced to a prehistoric Indo-European root reconstructed as er-, which meant “wandering about,” according to John Atyo’s Dictionary of Word Origins.
(Remember that a “knight errant” was an itinerant or traveling knight, roaming in search of adventure.)
As Ayto notes, “the semantic progression from ‘wandering’ to ‘making mistakes’ is reproduced in several other quite unrelated word groups in the Indo-European language family.”
The prehistoric root, he says, “produced Gothic airzei ‘error,’ Old High German irri ‘astray’ (source of modern German irre ‘angry’), Old English ierre ‘astray,’ and Latin errare ‘wander, make mistakes’—from which, via Old French errer, English got err.”
The word was first recorded in English at the turn of the 14th century, when it meant both to go astray and to make a mistake. Each of those meanings, according to OED citations, appears in Robert Manning of Brunne’s 1303 work Handlyng Synne.
Cousins of “err” appeared later in English writing: “error” (circa 1320), “errant” (c. 1369), “erratic” (c. 1374), and “erroneous” (c. 1400).