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I can’t believe it’s not margerine!

Q: Why is “margarine” pronounced as if it were spelled “margerine”? The letter “g” is almost always hard when followed by an “a” and soft when followed by an “e.”

A: You’re right in thinking that the letter combination “ga” normally produces a hard “g,” as in the name “Margaret,” while the combination “ge” usually produces a soft “g,” as in “Margery.” In fact, “margarine” was originally pronounced with a hard “g,” as you’d suppose from its spelling.

It’s spelled with “ga” because the word was coined in the early 19th century in French, where margarine has a hard “g.” And when the word first entered English in the mid-19th century, it had the same hard “g” sound that it has in French.

Only later, in the early 20th century, did the original English pronunciation begin to shift. Today the letter is soft, like the “g” in “gin,” a development the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says was probably influenced by “words like margin and such alterations in pronunciation as those of Margaret and Margie.”

We’ll have more on the pronunciation later. First, a little history of this word, which didn’t originally refer to something you’d put on your pancakes. It got its start in French as a chemical term, margarine. The butter substitute wasn’t invented until many decades later.

The word was coined in 1813 by the French chemist Michel-Eugène Chevreul. In experimenting with animal fats, he synthesized what he believed to be a previously unknown fatty substance, which he’d extracted from soap made of pork lard.

He gave this substance the chemical name margarine, a term soon adopted into English chemistry as “margarin” or “margarine.” And three years later, in 1816, Chevreul gave the name acide margarique (“margaric acid”) to the fatty acid he thought it came from.

Why those names? As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, the substance had “the appearance of mother-of-pearl,” so Chevreul adapted the name from the ancient Greek word for “pearl,” μαργαρίτης (margarites).

Keep in mind that in the first half of the 19th century, the words margarine, “margarin” and “margarine” were French and English chemical terms, not the names of edibles. The butter substitute wasn’t yet invented. The same is true of oléomargarine, a later French chemical term.

What the inventors of oléomargarine—Théophile-Jules Pelouze (a pharmaceutical scientist) and Félix Henri Boudet (a pharmacist)—synthesized in 1838 was a fatty solid derived from olive oil. They believed it to contain the same substances that Chevreul had synthesized from animal fats—margarine and another called oléine. By the late 1830s, these scientific terms were “olein” and “margarin” or “margarine” in English.

Pelouze and Boudet believed their discovery could have applications in the soap and candle industries. In fact, the terms “margarine candles” and “margarine soap” began appearing in English in the 1840s.

Although they discovered it in 1838, the new substance wasn’t given the name oléomargarine until 1854, when the French chemist Pierre Eugène Marcellin Berthelot chose that name because of its supposed constituents, oléine and margarine. (Incidentally, the French oléine and English “olein” are derived from the Latin word for “oil,” eleum.)

Finally we come to the edible, spreadable butter substitute. Its invention in 1869 was inspired by a butter shortage in France and a contest sponsored by Napoleon III, who offered a prize to anyone who could develop an artificial butter.

The winner was yet another French chemist, Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès, who described his invention in the original 1869 patent as “comme le beurre” (“like butter”), according to the Oxford English Dictionary. He said its chemical constituents included the oléine and margarine identified by Chevreul more than half a century earlier.

In a later patent, filed in 1874, Mège-Mouriès added skimmed cow’s milk to the mixture, so it “a la même composition que le beurre” (“has the same composition as butter”), the OED says.

And based on its supposed ingredients, oléine and margarine, he formally gave his invention both a scientific and a general name: “L’oléomargarine, nommé vulgairement margarine” (“Oleomargarine, commonly called margarine”).

So the French word margarine didn’t specifically mean artificial butter until 60 years after the term was coined in chemistry.

Though Mège-Mouriès didn’t officially name his invention until 1874, two English nouns for it, “margarine” and “oleomargarine,” jumped the gun slightly—no doubt borrowed from his formula.

The OED’s earliest citation for “margarine” to mean artificial butter is from an American patent  issued in 1873: “When it is cold … it constitutes … a greasy matter of very good taste, and which may replace the butter in the kitchen, where it is employed under the name of ‘margarine.’ ”

The dictionary’s earliest example of “oleomargarine” in the buttery sense is from Scientific American (Oct. 18, 1873): “The manufacture of artificial butter by the ‘Oleomargarine Manufacturing Company.’ ”

The names “margarine” and “oleomargarine” have meant the kitchen product ever since. But we can’t overlook the short forms: “oleo” and “marge.” These are Oxford’s oldest examples:

“There is one firm in London which is able to turn out from ten to twenty tons of this valuable oleo per week” (Daily News, London, Dec. 11, 1884) … “Potatoes and marge, marge and potatoes” (James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, 1922).

Notice that “marge” as a short form developed after the English “margarine” had largely shifted to a soft “g,” a development that was noticed—and condemned as a mispronunciation—at the turn of the century.

The soft “g” pronunciation wasn’t accepted by lexicographers until 1913, when it was included, though as a lesser variant, in the Phonetic Dictionary of the English Language, by Hermann Michaelis and Daniel Jones.

But soon after, the pronunciations switched places in the opinion of phoneticians. In An English Pronouncing Dictionary (1917), Daniel Jones listed the preferred pronunciation is /dʒə/ (soft “g”), with /ɡə/ (hard “g”) as a less frequent variant.

The older pronunciation, according to the OED,  “became rare in the second half of the 20th cent.” Now for a historic footnote:

The French terms oléomargarine and margarine were based on a scientific misunderstanding, according to the OED. “As subsequent research showed that neither the margarine of Chevreul, nor the oléomargarine of Berthelot, were definite chemical compounds,” the dictionary says, “these names are no longer in chemical use.”

But though defunct in scientific use, they live on in the names used today for the butter substitute.

[Note: On Sept. 21, 2022, a reader writes to say, “ ‘Margarine’ has hard ‘g’ in winter and a soft ‘g’ in summer.”]

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