Q: As a birdwatcher in Florida, it grates on my ears to hear the town of Osprey referred to as OSS-pree. The bird’s name rhymes with “prey,” which works since the Osprey is a bird of prey. Why does the town’s name rhyme with “spree,” as in a shopping spree?
A: The bird’s name literally means “bird of prey,” so we can see why you assume the last syllable should sound like the word “prey.”
But the usual American pronunciation of the bird’s name rhymes with “spree,” so the townspeople of Osprey aren’t guilty of any disrespect to this wonderful bird.
The word apparently came into English in the late Middle Ages from the French ospreit, which was derived from post-classical Latin avis prede (“bird of prey”).
It was first recorded in English, spelled “hospray,” about 1450, the OED says. The “h” soon disappeared, as in this citation: “Every goos, teele, Mallard, Ospray, & also swanne.” (From John Russell’s Boke of Nurture, written sometime before 1475.)
Shakespeare mentions the bird in his tragedy Coriolanus (possibly 1605-08): “I think he’ll be to Rome / As is the Aspray to the fish, who takes it / By sovereignty of nature.”
The “osprey” spelling didn’t become the norm until around the mid-18th century, according to OED citations.
The bird is defined in the OED as “a large, long-winged, dark brown and white bird of prey” whose taxonomic name is Pandion haliaetus. It lives principally on fish—both marine and freshwater—and is found almost worldwide.
Getting back to how “osprey” sounds, the OED says it’s pronounced differently in Britain and in the US. In British English it’s OSS-pray, while in American English it’s OSS-pree.
The online Cambridge Dictionary, published in Britain, also gives OSS-pray as the British pronunciation and OSS-pree as the American.
Three standard American dictionaries—The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), and Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed.)—give both pronunciations, listing OSS-pree first and OSS-pray second. They use OSS-pree for their online pronouncers.