Q: It’s recently come to my attention that “valet” should rhyme with “mallet.” The problem is, I don’t know anyone who has this pronunciation. So how does one ask for “valet parking” properly without seeming like a contemptible snoot?
A: It’s hard to mispronounce the noun “valet.” We’ve checked nine standard dictionaries and found three acceptable pronunciations: VA-lay, VA-let, and va-LAY. The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, has similar pronunciations.
Some dictionaries list them in a different order and some include only two, but all three are treated as standard in several dictionaries, including Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate (11th ed.) and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.).
Three of the dictionaries have pronunciations for “valet” used adjectivally in “valet parking.” The online Cambridge and Longman dictionaries pronounce it VA-lay, while the online Macmillan pronounces it VA-let.
If we were speaking about a manservant in an old English novel, we’d use VA-let. But if we were referring to “valet parking” at a restaurant or “valet service” at a hotel, we’d say VA-lay.
English adopted the noun “valet” in the 16th century from French and Old French. However, the ultimate source is the Old Celtic term wasso- (young man, squire), which has given us “vassal” and “varlet,” according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.
In the 1500s and 1600s, the noun was sometimes spelled “vallett” or “valett,” suggesting that the French pronunciation of valet had been Anglicized, with an audible “t” sound at the end.
However, OED citations show that some English speakers began dropping the “t” sound in the 1700s and 1800s, first in Scotland and then in England.
By the mid-1800s, multiple pronunciations were standard, according to Walker’s Pronouncing Dictionary of the English Language.
The 1862 edition of the dictionary, by Francis R. Sowerby, includes these three pronunciations: VAL-et, VAL-lay, and va-LET.
When the noun showed up in English, according to the OED, it meant a “man-servant performing duties chiefly relating to the person of his master; a gentleman’s personal attendant.”
The earliest citation in the dictionary is from Certaine Tragicall Discourses, the English statesman Geoffrey Fenton’s 1567 translation of works by the Italian writer Matteo Bandello: “Not worthy any waye to be valet to the worste of us.”
This 1791 example of a “t”-less pronunciation is from the Scottish poet William Hamilton’s Epistles to his fellow poet Allan Ramsay: “I wad nae care to be thy vallie, / Or thy recorder.”
And here’s an example from Richard Barham’s Ingoldsby Legends (1840) in which “valet” rhymes with “Sally”:
“Thompson, the Valet, / Look’d gravely at Sally.” (Barham, an Anglican cleric, wrote the humorous ghost stories under the pseudonym Thomas Ingoldsby.)
The first OED example for “valet service” is from Some Buried Caesar (1939), a Nero Wolfe detective novel by Rex Stout: “You should have put on some old clothes. The valet service here is terrible.” (The “Caesar” of the title is a champion Guernsey bull, Hickory Caesar Grindon.)
The first Oxford citation for “valet parking” is from the The Britannica Book of the Year (1955): “Valet parking … referred to a system in which an attendant was responsible for parking the car.” The OED describes the usage as North American.
The dictionary also has citations for the verbs “valet” (1840, to wait upon or serve) and “valet-park” (1983).
We’ll end with an example of the verb used in its “manservant” sense: “Fancy me waited upon and valeted by a stout party in black, of quiet, gentlemanly manners” (from Tom Brown at Oxford, an 1861 novel by Thomas Hughes). We’d pronounce the past participle here as VAL-et-ed.