Q: I recently corrected yet another person who pronounced “nuptial” as if it were spelled “nuptual,” and continue to lament the fact that I have almost never heard it pronounced correctly. Do any of the standard dictionaries you consult have it as an alternative, or (God forbid!) as the first choice?
A: It’s dangerous to correct someone, especially on pronunciation. Language changes and dictionaries change along with it. That said, you’re in the majority on “nuptial.”
Only one of the ten standard dictionaries we use accepts a three-syllable pronunciation, as if the word were spelled “nuptual.” The other nine accept only two-syllable versions.
Webster’s New World College Dictionary (5th ed.) is the outlier here. In listing acceptable pronunciations of “nuptial,” it first gives the two-syllable versions: NUP-shəl and NUP-chəl. (The ə symbol, called a schwa, represents an “uh” sound, like the “a” in “ago” or “about.”) Those pronunciations, as the dictionary explains in its front matter, may be regarded as “widely used in American speech.”
But following those, it lists these three-syllable variants introduced by “also”: NUP-shə-wəl and NUP-chə-wəl. In Webster’s New World, a variant pronunciation that’s qualified with an italicized “also” or “occas.” does not occur as regularly in American English but shouldn’t be considered nonstandard.
The only other dictionaries that comment at all on the three-syllable pronunciations—Merriam-Webster online and the larger, subscription-only Merriam-Webster Unabridged—do label them nonstandard. The remaining American and British dictionaries that we regard as authoritative list only two-syllable versions.
All ten dictionaries accept NUP-shəl (with “sh” in the last syllable) as the principal pronunciation, many giving it as the only one. Most add NUP-chəl (with “ch”) as well, though in actual speech it can be hard to tell the difference.
So that’s the picture as far as standard dictionaries. As for the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, it gives only the preferred two-syllable pronunciation (with “sh”), though it suggests there’s a hint of a “t” in there: NUPT-shəl.
As you know, “nuptial” is an adjective having to do with matrimony and the marriage ceremony, as well as a noun for a wedding. The noun appears sometimes in the singular but it’s mostly used in the plural, “nuptials.”
The word was borrowed, the OED says, either from French (nuptial) or from Latin, in which nuptialis means “of or relating to marriage or a wedding” and nuptiae means “wedding.” The nupt- element, the dictionary adds, is the past participial stem of the Latin nubere (to marry).
The adjective form entered English first, in the late 15th century, and the noun followed in the mid-16th.
This is the OED’s earliest example of the noun in English writing: “The goddesse Iuno, quene and patronesse of the commocyons [commotions] nupcyalle” (The Boke yf Eneydos [Aeneids], William Caxton’s 1490 translation from a French version of Virgil’s Latin). We like the phrase “nuptial commotions”!
And this is Oxford’s earliest citation for the noun: “Within a while after (he being vanquished with loue) maried her secretly at her house, and solempnized the nuptialles by a Prieste vnknowen” (The Palace of Pleasure Beautified, Adorned and Well Furnished, a book of stories collected and retold by William Painter, 1566).
Finally, since we’re occasionally asked which standard dictionaries we use, here they are in alphabetical order. They’re free online except where noted.
- The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language
- Cambridge English Dictionary
- Collins English Dictionary
- Dictionary.com, based on The Random House Unabridged Dictionary
- Lexico, formerly Oxford Dictionaries Online
- Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English
- Macmillan Dictionary
- Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary
- Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, subscription only
- Webster’s New World College Dictionary (5th ed.), print only