The Grammarphobia Blog

Do you say AH-kwa or ACK-wa?

Q: After viewing a 1967 “Aquaman” cartoon, I overheard some people make fun of the narrator Ted Knight’s ACK-wa-man pronunciation. But when I was a child in the ’60s, everyone pronounced “aqua” that way. Why is AH-kwa-man the usual pronunciation now?

A: The word “aqua” was probably pronounced AH-kwa when it showed up in English in the Middle Ages, but the pronunciation was AKE-wa or ACK-wa for hundreds of years before AH-kwa was revived in American English in the 1970s. As you remember, the usual pronunciation in the US was indeed ACK-wa when Aquaman splashed on to the comic scene in the mid-20th century. Here’s the story.

English borrowed the Latin word aqua (“water”) in the late 1300s. In Middle English, “aqua” was a noun used attributively (that is, adjectivally) in the names of various solutions in pharmacy and chemistry, such as “aqua mirabilis” (an aromatic mixture of nutmeg, ginger, wine, etc.), “aqua regia” (nitric and hydrochloric acids), and “aqua vitae” (strong distilled alcohol).

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary refers to “aqua rosacea” (rose water): “of grene rose aqua rosacea is made by seþynge of fuyre oþer of þe sonne” (“rosewater is made by boiling green rose with fire or the sun”). From John Trevisa’s translation in the late 1300s of De Proprietatibus Rerum, an encyclopedic Latin reference work compiled in the mid-1200s by the medieval scholar Bartholomeus Anglicus.

In the late 19th century, according to OED citations, “aqua-” began being used as “a combining form or quasi-adj., esp. in expressions referring to aquatic entertainment.” The dictionary’s first example is from the June 1887 issue of Gentleman’s Magazine: “When the ‘Théâtre Nautique’ first opened its doors the bill presented … a three act aqua-drama of Chinese life, entitled ‘Kao-Kang.’ ”

Other early aquatic compounds were “aqua-glider” (1930), “aquadrome” (1935), and “aquacade” (1937). The comic-book character Aquaman (created by Paul Norris and Mort Weisinger) first appeared in the November 1941 anthology More Fun Comics No. 73.

In classical times, the initial a of the Latin aqua was pronounced much like the “a” of the English word “about,” according to modern linguistic reconstructions of classical Latin. And the first syllable of a two-syllable word like aqua was stressed, so it would have been pronounced something like UH-kwuh.

Some scholars believe the word aqua was used in classical Latin to imitate animal sounds. In Rudens, a comedy by  the Roman playwright Plautus, a wet, shivering survivor of a shipwreck stutters “aqu aqu aqua” (“wa-wa-water”), which some Latinists believe suggests the quacking of a duck. And the poet Ovid’s use of “sub aqua sub aqua” in Metamorphoses to describe Lycian peasants turned into frogs is said to suggest croaking.

Skipping ahead, Latin pronunciation had evolved significantly by the time Trevisa introduced the English word “aqua” in translating the Latin aqua. In medieval Latin, heavily influenced by church usage, the a of aqua was pronounced like the first vowel of “father” or “aha,” according to the historian G. Herbert Fowler (“Notes on the Pronunciation of Medieval Latin in England,” published in the journal History, September 1937).

So Trevisa, a Catholic cleric, would have pronounced the Latin aqua as AH-kwa. In fact, aqua is still pronounced that way in ecclesiastical Latin. You can hear it in the line “Aqua lateris Christi, lava me” of this choral rendition of Anima Christi, a 14th-century prayer to Jesus.

We haven’t found any evidence of how Trevisa pronounced his new English word “aqua,” but we assume that he and other British scholars would have used the medieval Latin pronunciation. In other words, the original pronunciation of “aqua” in Middle English was probably AH-kwa.

However, the pronunciation of the first “a” in “aqua” has  changed noticeably in English since the Middle Ages, according to British and American dictionaries from the 18th to the 21st century.

In the UK, for example, A General Dictionary of the English Language (1780), by Thomas Sheridan, pronounces “aqua” as AKE-wa (the first vowel is described as the one in “hate” and the second as the one in “hat”). In A Critical  Pronouncing Dictionary and Expositor of the English Language (1791), John Walker pronounces it similarly, using “fate” and “fat” as his examples.

Another British source, An English Pronouncing Dictionary, on Strictly Phonetic Principles (first ed., 1917), by Daniel Jones, pronounces it in compound terms as ACK-wa or AKE-wa. Jones describes AKE-wa as a less-frequent variant, and drops it from the 1944 fifth edition of his dictionary. The first vowel of ACK-wa is pronounced with the “a” of “cat” and the second with the “a” of “China.”

In American English, “aqua” was pronounced AKE-wa (with the vowel sounds of “fate” and “fat”) in the late 19th century and early 20th centuries, according to the first and last editions of the Century Dictionary, published from 1889 to 1911.

But it was both ACK-wa and AKE-wa in the mid-20th century, according to our 1956 printing of Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language, Second Edition, Unabridged. ACK-wa (“the preferred form”) was pronounced with the “a” sounds of “add” and “sofa.”

Getting back to your question, we assume that the “aqua” of Aquaman was usually pronounced ACK-wa (the favored pronunciation in Webster’s Second) when the comic-book character first appeared in 1941.

In the 1960s, when Aquaman made his first animated appearances, the preferred pronunciation of “aqua” in the US was still ACK-wa, with AKE-wa as a less common variant, according to a 1963 printing of The Merriam-Webster Pocket Dictionary in our library.

But by the late 1970s, “aqua” had three different pronunciations in the US: ACK-wa, AH-kwa, and AKE-wa, according to Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language (2d. ed, 1979), with the variants listed in the order “most frequent in general cultivated use.”

Today, AH-kwa is the usual American pronunciation, with ACK-wa a less common variant, according to the online Merriam-Webster Unabridged. A British dictionary, Lexico (formerly Oxford Dictionaries Online), says the only British pronunciation is ACK-wa.

(The first “a” is pronounced as “uh” in both American and British English when it’s unstressed in such terms as “aquarium,” “aquatic,” and “Aquarius.”)

We haven’t seen any authoritative explanation for the revival of the AH-kwa pronunciation in the US over the last four decades. It may have been inspired by the pronunciation in ecclesiastical Latin, but the use of Latin has declined in Roman Catholic churches since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

We’ll end with a YouTube video of Ted Knight’s introduction to the Aquaman TV series, which ran from 1967 to 1970 on CBS.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language. For a change of pace, read Chapter 1 of Swan Song, a novel.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.