Q: Should “long-lived” and “short-lived” be pronounced with a long or a short “i”? I have always wondered about that and I would appreciate your consideration of this issue.
A: The traditional pronunciation of “-lived” in a compound is with a long “i,” but current dictionaries say the vowel can now be either long (as in the noun “life”) or short (as in the verb “live”).
How did this change come about? The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), which accepts both pronunciations, sheds some light in a Word History note.
“Some uncertainty exists as to the correct pronunciation of long-lived,” the note says. “The answer depends in part on how one looks at the word.”
Historically, according to American Heritage, “the first pronunciation is the more accurate. The word was formed in Middle English times as a compound of long and the noun life, plus the suffix –ed.”
In Middle English, the editors note, “the suffix -ed was always pronounced as a full syllable, so long-lifed (as it was then spelled) had three syllables.”
Later, the dictionary continues, the “f” came to be pronounced as “v,” and “eventually, the spelling became long-lived to reflect the pronunciation.”
But this new spelling, American Heritage says, “introduced an ambiguity; it was no longer clear from the spelling that the word came from the noun life, but rather looked as though it came from the verb live.”
Thus the new pronunciation was introduced, and over the years it has come to be accepted as standard English, along with the traditional pronunciation.