Q: A supercilious acquaintance looked down his nose at me when I pronounced “bona fide” as BOH-nuh-fied. He says the authentic pronunciation of this phrase borrowed from Latin should be boh-nuh-FEE-day. How would YOU pronounce it?
A: Like you, we say BOH-nuh-fied, as do most Americans. Your snooty friend’s pronunciation may be heard in Latin classes, but it isn’t found in English dictionaries in either the US or the UK.
The two most common English pronunciations of “bona fide,” according to the six standard dictionaries we’ve consulted, are BOH-nuh-fied (the end rhymes with “fried”), and boh-nuh-FYE-dee (the end rhymes with “tidy”).
The three-syllable version is more common in the US. In fact, it’s the default audible pronunciation given online by The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).
To hear it, go to their sites and click on the little loudspeaker icons.
The four-syllable pronunciation is standard in the UK, according to all the British dictionaries we’ve checked. To hear it, go to the UK English version of Oxford Dictionaries online.
Although the three-syllable pronunciation is more common in the US, American dictionaries also accept the four-syllable version, as well as some less common variations. The first vowel can also sound like the “o” in “bonnet,” for example. And the final vowel in the four-syllable version can sound like the “e” in “the.”
But while boh-nuh-FYE-dee is accepted by American dictionaries, it may not be advisable.
As Bryan A. Garner writes in Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), it’s “pedantic outside the law and precious even in legal contexts.”
Your friend’s pronunciation, boh-nuh-FEE-day, roughly corresponds to the Latin, but we’re talking about English here. (We doubt that your friend pronounces “Caesar” as KYE-zar or “vice versa” as WEE-keh WARE-sah, as the Romans once did.)
In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary, in its etymology of “bona fide,” says that even “classical scholars sometimes preserve the Latin quantity of the vowels … without the Latin vowel sounds.”
In Latin, bona fide means “with good faith.” In English, the OED says, it was originally an adverb meaning “genuinely,” “with sincerity,” or “in good faith.”
The adverb dates back to the time of Henry VIII, the dictionary says, when it was recorded in the Acts of Parliament for 1542-43: “The same to procede bona fide, without fraude.”
But “bona fide” has also become an English adjective meaning “genuine,” “sincere,” or “done in good faith.”
The OED’s earliest citation for the adjective is from John Joseph Powell’s An Essay Upon the Learning of Devises (1788): “Act not to extend to bonâ fide purchasers for a valuable consideration.”
“Bona fides,” the noun version, came into English in the mid-19th century. (The usual pronunciation, in both the US and the UK, is boh-nuh-FYE-deez. However, American dictionaries also accept a less-common, three-syllable variation whose ending rhymes with “tides.”)
The OED describes “bona fides” as a singular noun used in the law to mean “good faith” or “freedom from intent to deceive.” The dictionary’s only two examples are from 19th-century legal usage.
This one, from 1885, is a good illustration of the legal use: “It was said that this shewed bona fides on their part” (from Law Reports, Chancery Division).
In the mid-20th century, the noun “bona fides” developed a plural sense that the OED defines as “guarantees of good faith.”
The first example in the dictionary is from a 1944 issue of the journal Notes and Queries: “I notice in one of our best sellers the remark ‘If Mina’s bona fides are once questioned.’ ”
The OED regards this plural usage as a mistake: “Erroneously treated as pl. form of bona fide (assumed to be n. sing.)”
However, Oxford Dictionaries (a different entity from the OED) describes the usage as informal and gives this example: “‘Now, however, the bona fides of some of those ordinations are in question.”
And most of the other standard dictionaries we’ve checked accept without reservation the use of “bona fides” as a plural noun meaning good intentions, authentic credentials, proofs of legitimacy, and so on.
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate has this example: “the informant’s bona fides were ascertained.” And American Heritage has an example that describes a singer whose “operatic bona fides were prominently on display.”
In addition, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage has citations that mention phrases like “the bona fides of a Soviet defector,” “social bona fides,” “literary bona fides,” and “his bona fides on this issue.”
In “this now-established new meaning,” the M-W usage guide says, the noun “very often occurs in contexts where it does not govern a verb.”
But when it is the subject of a verb, M-W adds, “the verb is usually plural,” as in this example: “Fritz Kolbe’s bona fides were unambiguously established” (from the New York Times Book Review, 1983).
OK, this use of “bona fides” is legit. But why use it at all? In our opinion, “bona fides” is a stuffy noun, and a word like “credentials” or “authenticity” or “legitimacy” would do a better job.
Bryan Garner, in his usage guide, agrees that the plural term has an “air of affectation.” And he adds: “Making bona fides singular sounds pedantic; making it plural is likely to offend those who have a smattering of Latin.”