Q: My girlfriend, an English major, tells me that I’m pronouncing “flaccid” wrong. I say FLAS-id and she says FLAK-sid. Should we call the whole thing off?
A: No, you’re both right, and (as the Gershwin song goes) you’d better call the calling off off.
The word “flaccid” (meaning soft or weak) has two pronunciations in standard dictionaries. Some list FLAS-id first and others FLAK-sid, but both are considered standard English today.
Traditionally, “flaccid” was pronounced only one way—FLAK-sid, similar to the pronunciations of other English words in which the letter combination “cc” comes before “i” or “e” (as in “accept,” “success,” and “vaccination”).
The 1926 first edition of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, by Henry W. Fowler, lists only the traditional pronunciation.
But the 2015 fourth edition of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, edited by Jeremy Butterfield, says it can be pronounced either way, though FLAS-id “is probably more frequently heard.”
A more conservative usage guide, Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), prefers the traditional pronunciation, but Bryan A. Garner, the author, warns readers about using the term:
“In short, the word is a kind of skunked term: pronounce it in the traditional way, and you’ll take some flak for doing so; pronounce it in the new way, and the cognoscenti will probably infer that you couldn’t spell or say cognoscenti, either.”
We think the traditionalists are fighting a losing battle. If we have to use the term, we’ll pronounce it FLAS-id, never mind the cognoscenti.
Language commentators began criticizing FLAS-id in the 19th century, as in this example from Pronouncing Handbook of Words Often Mispronounced (1873), by Richard Soule and Loomis J. Campbell: “flaccid, flak’sid, not flas’id.”
However, we’ve found many earlier examples from the 18th and 19th centuries for “flaccid” misspelled as “flacid,” suggesting that it was pronounced like—and perhaps influenced by—“placid.”
Here’s an example from A Dictionary of Surgery (1796), by Benjamin Lara: “When the parts continue mortisied for a great length of time, without either turning flacid, or running into dissolution, it is called a dry gangrene.”
In fact, the misspelling is common enough now to be cited by Garner, who gives this example from a May 12, 2002, restaurant review in the New York Post:
“The succulent shellfish practically melted on the tongue, but the tempura coating was oddly flacid.”
As for the etymology, English borrowed “flaccid” from French in the early 1600s, but the ultimate sources are the classical Latin flaccidus (limp) and flaccus (flabby).
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term as “wanting in stiffness, hanging or lying loose or in wrinkles; limber, limp; flabby.”
The earliest citation in the OED is from Via Recta ad Vitam Longam, a 1620 book about health and hygiene. The author, Tobias Venner, a physician in the English spa town of Bath, warns against the dangers of drinking milk:
“And whosoeuer shall vse to drinke milke, because that it is hurtfull to the gummes and teeth; for the one it maketh flaccide, and the other subiect to putrefaction.”