## Pronouncing Poinsettia

If you look up the pronunciation of poinsettia in the dictionary, you'll find two versions, one that follows the spelling in a regular way (/ˌpɔɪnˈsɛ.tɪə/) and one that would more naturally correspond to the spelling "poinsetta" (/ˌpɔɪnˈsɛ.tə/).

A couple of days ago, a journalist contacted me about this. I knew that the word was formed by adding the usual pseudo-Latin -ia to the last name of Joel Roberts Poinsett, just as Clarke Abel's name gave us abelia and William Forsyth's name generated forsythia. And I knew that there is a common (and even dictionary-sanctioned) alternative pronunciation for poinsettia. But why the i-less version of poinsettia and not (for example) a similar version of forsythia?

A quick web search didn't turn up anything specific about the history. But I suspect that this is a sort of orthographic/phonological neighborhood effect. There are lots of common traditionally-female first names that end in -etta — the U.S. Census Bureau list of the 5,000 commonest female first names from the 1990 census has 54 of them, from

 Name Rank Loretta 189 Henrietta 227 Etta 536 Rosetta 579

to

 Name Rank Wanetta 4185 Maryetta 4218 Lovetta 4224 Jeanetta 4241

as well as some familiar words like beretta, operetta, vendetta.

None of the 5,000 commonest female (or male) names ends in -ettia, and after poinsettia, the commonest -ettia words in an English Wikipedia snapshot are weird enough that I wasn't familiar with any of them (each word is preceded by its count of occurrences in the Wikipedia snapshot that I tested:

392 poinsettia
142 millettia
28 cettia
27 manettia
12 comparettia
8 lettia
7 hulettia
6 vettia
6 pugettia
6 silhouettia
5 quekettia

And -ttia isn't any better:

643 mattia
417 zakarpattia
392 poinsettia
142 millettia
119 attia
76 lottia
75 neottia
64 perittia
64 prykarpattia
64 melittia
55 harttia
36 orcuttia
28 cettia

It's true that -ythia yields only a single first name, Cythia (in 2058th place), and no familiar (to me) words other than forsythia and Scythia— thus again from the Wikipedia snapshot:

565 scythia
247 pythia
121 forsythia
105 paramythia
25 stichomythia
19 alaythia
7 skythia

But on the other hand,  -ytha is worse — no names, and slim pickings in Wikipedia:

91 gytha
88 cassytha
35 clytha
35 waytha
16 aaytha
10 paramytha
8 edgytha
6 mildgytha

In contrast, -thia yields a reasonable harvest of names — besides Cythia, there's  Cynthia (in 28th place), plus the variant spellings Cinthia / Synthia, and Alethia. And there are a few other perhaps-familiar place names ending with -thia in the Wikipedia snapshot, like Parthia and Carpathia.

So all in all, I think the neighborhood-effect explanation is plausible, though there might well be some additional factors unknown to me.

The journalist also wondered whether the "poinsetta" pronunciation is a mistake, and whether people who use it should be corrected. My response was that there are lots of similar cases of variants with a phoneme or two missingfebruary, surprise, etc. — and the fact that such variants are listed in dictionaries is a good reason not to correct people who prefer them. And there are other cases where pronouncing the lost phonemes is actually a mistake — wednesday (at least in the U.S.), worcester, etc.

What Horace said about word usage also applies to word pronunciation:

multa renascentur quae iam cecidere cadentque
quae nunc sunt in honore vocabula, si volet usus,
quem penes arbitrium est et ius et norma loquendi.

Many words shall revive, which now have fallen off;
and many which are now in esteem shall fall off, if it be the will of custom,
in whose power is the decision and right and standard of language.

1. ### M.N. said,

December 27, 2015 @ 5:57 pm

I've also heard "pointsetta", which I guess must be either a case of epenthesis, or the influence of actual "point" compounds, or both.

2. ### Dick Margulis said,

December 27, 2015 @ 6:06 pm

My wife reports that a former neighbor of hers consistently called the yellow-flowering shrub forcynthia.

The examples I offer to go with your Wednesday and Worcester are bouillon and lingerie, the apparently "correct" (i.e., French) pronunciation of which would be seen as laughably affected or just plain wrong in all varieties of AmE that I'm familiar with.

3. ### Chips Mackinolty said,

December 27, 2015 @ 6:22 pm

@ M.N. As a child I always heard it, and pronounced it, as "pointsettia", and was much later irritated to find I was wrong all those years! (and indeed my spell check twice corrected me in writing this)

4. ### Gregory Kusnick said,

December 27, 2015 @ 6:33 pm

Fuchsia presents an odd case in which the "natural" pronunciation of fewksia or fooksia has been completely displaced by fewsha, with the s phonologically transposed to before the ch.

5. ### Duncan said,

December 27, 2015 @ 6:40 pm

I grew up (4-11 years old) in Kenya, where poinsettias grow "in the wild". We had one in our yard, and I remember learning the -ta vocalization from well before I could spell it and likely before I could read it, so it was definitely a vocal transfer. My parents are from the US Northwest, with his parents from Alberta, and both sets of ancestors from the UK and Germany, but of course growing up in Kenya, a former crown colony, there was also a very strong British-English influence (we were there for the 10th anniversary of independence in 1973, and to this day I normally say zebra with the BrEnglish short e and in our family it's not uncommon to refer to the boot and the bonnet of a car instead of the trunk and the hood, respectively), and wide exposure to both native African accents and wider afield Filipino, Indian, and general Western European accents as well.

By high school I was back in the US, going to school in Colorado (after some time in the US Northwest), and took a work/study class working in a greenhouse my sophomore (9th grade, talking about missing phonemes, the middle o in sophomore) year. There, we raised poinsettias for Christmas sale, and I'm /reasonably/ sure that's where I first really became aware of the spelling and -tia pronunciation, tho I'm equally sure I had /heard/ it in Kenya, but there it had floated mostly or entirely below conscious level, as just one of so many ways people I was exposed to growing up said various words.

Today, if I'm thinking about it I'll say poinsettia, -tia, very consciously so, reveling in the pleasure of the way it rolls of my tongue in a way the plain -ta form doesn't. Tho I'll sometimes say scissors with the c/k sound in much the same way, altho that's much more deliberate and probably 50/50 or 40/60 in favor of the unvoiced C. I'm not sure how I say poinsettia, -ta or -tia, when I'm not thinking about it. I'm guessing it largely depends on context and whether I've been primed by someone else's pronunciation before I say it myself. Either way, immediately upon thinking about it, the -ta version sounds unfinished and is actively "displeasurable" to say, with the -tia version both sounding and feeling /much/ more pleasurable to say.

6. ### empty said,

December 27, 2015 @ 6:45 pm

Can we talk about wistaria? I think that it was named after a Mr. Wistar, and that the spelling "wistaria" led to a pronunciation which led to the spelling "wisteria", which led to yet another pronunciation.

[(myl) Wikipedia sez:

The botanist Thomas Nuttall said he named the genus Wisteria in memory of Dr. Caspar Wistar (1761–1818). Questioned about the spelling later, Nuttall said it was for "euphony," but his biographer speculated that it may have something to do with Nuttall's friend Charles Jones Wister, Sr., of Grumblethorpe, the grandson of the merchant John Wister. (Some Philadelphia sources state that the plant is named after Wister.) As the spelling is apparently deliberate, there is no justification for changing the genus name under the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature. However, some spell the plant's common name "wistaria", and Fowler is decisively for the "wistaria" spelling.

]

7. ### January First-of-May said,

December 27, 2015 @ 7:25 pm

Having recently been trying to archive-binge my way through classic Language Log (up to post number 550 or so at this point – which will likely go way up as I have more free time in early January), I immediately associated the word "poinsettia" with the December 2003 post "Anti-Effle" (about natural phrases particularly unlikely to come up in foreign-language courses).
Sadly, not only I have, at best, a very vague idea of what a poinsettia is (I would've probably answered that it was an animal of some kind if asked before I read "Anti-Effle", and even now that the word is on my mind thanks to that post, I still keep thinking of it as an animal more often than not), but the other long word involved in the original quote is one that I keep misspelling (and mispronouncing), so I couldn't even quote it properly. You can easily read it in the 2003 original anyway (for the record, it's post 254, or at least numbered as such).

December 27, 2015 @ 7:33 pm

The cruciferous genus, Aubrieta, was named after a Claude Aubriet. In Britain, it is commonly pronounced "aub-ree-sha", as though there were a second 'i' after the 't'.

9. ### David L said,

December 27, 2015 @ 10:21 pm

Judging by my own personal experience I would say there is a transatlantic difference here. In Britain, I was used to poinsettia pronounced as spelled, and forsythia pronounced with a long 'i' sound (as in 'bite). But in the US I more often hear 'pointsetta' and 'forsithia' with a short 'i' (as in 'bit').

Another one is dahlia. In the UK it's dale-eeya, whereas in the US the first syllable is pronounced like Roald Dahl's last name, which I assume is more correct.

But I think everyone says 'gar-deenia,' which I take be not at all the way Dr Alexander Garden (Scottish-born American, per Wikipedia) would have said his name.

10. ### Jerry Friedman said,

December 27, 2015 @ 11:19 pm

David L: In my experience, however you pronounce Latin names of organisms, you'll be corrected.

The American pronunciation of "dahlia" I know rhymes the first syllable with "pal", /dæl/, which is different from the American pronunciation I know of Roald's last name, /dɑl/.

I think a lot of us, including me, say "pointsett[i]a" for the same reason we say "prince" the same as "prints".

11. ### Guy said,

December 28, 2015 @ 12:26 am

I think part of the story is that most historical instances of /tiːə/ or /tjə/ have undergone a cross-linguistically common sound change to /t͡ʃə/, leaving /tiːə/ or /tjə/ a somewhat uncommon phoneme sequence.

12. ### Liz Coleman said,

December 28, 2015 @ 12:56 am

@Jerry Friedman

I've always said "dahl-ia." "Dal-ia" sounds strange to my (Pacific NW) ears.

13. ### Gregory Kusnick said,

December 28, 2015 @ 1:19 am

Like Liz, I say "dahlia" with the same vowel as "dolly", not "dally". (Born and raised in NY State, now living in Washington State.)

Jerry: Do "pine-size" and "pint-size" sound the same to you?

14. ### Bathrobe said,

December 28, 2015 @ 2:45 am

When I was growing up in Australia, I seem to remember the pronunciation "ponsettia" rather than "poinsettia".

"Dahlia" is definitely "day-lya".

15. ### Uly said,

December 28, 2015 @ 3:56 am

Wow, go Horace. I'm putting that on my "If I ever get a tattoo" list, because it's a heck of a lot shorter than the Chaucer quote on the subject of linguistic change. Also, Latin.

16. ### John from Cincinnati said,

December 28, 2015 @ 7:05 am

But on the other hand, -ytha is worse — no names, and slim pickings in Wikipedia:

91 gytha

There's at least one name of record! Gytha "Nanny" Ogg, as scrupulously documented in Sir Terry Pratchett's esteemed Discworld histories.

[(myl) Sorry — "no names" was short for "no names in the U.S. Census Bureau's list of the 5,000 commonest first female (and for that matter male) first names…"]

17. ### January First-of-May said,

December 28, 2015 @ 7:17 am

@Uly: is it? Doesn't look that much shorter to me.
The Chaucer quote has 50 syllables, while this one has 51, as far as I can tell. (Actually, due to some complications of Middle English spelling, as far as the number of letters is concerned, Chaucer's version is, in fact, longer, by about a quarter.)

I wasn't aware there was anything on language change prior to Chaucer, though (and Latin is indeed cool).
Made me wonder, incidentally, what language did Chaucer mean in his "thousand year" comment; certainly he wouldn't have known much about whatever language the Angles and Saxons spoke in the 4th century, but he could have been referring to the difference between Latin and Norman French (both of which he would have known very well), or perhaps not actually to anything in particular.

@John from Cincinnati: or, indeed, Gytha of Wessex, Harold Godwinsson's daughter (who married Vladimir Monomakh).
Edgytha is also a name, I think (an old form of "Edith"), but I can't recall any examples (that are not spelled "Eadgyth", anyway).

18. ### Ray said,

December 28, 2015 @ 9:09 am

I wonder if the avoidance of pronouncing it 'point-set-ti-a' in favor of 'point-set-ta' has to do with the former sounding 'uneducated?' for example, we pronounce the '-tia' in words like militia, inertia, dimentia as a more or less elegant 'shuh' sound, not as a sounding-it-out-while-reading-every-syllable sound.

19. ### Mr Punch said,

December 28, 2015 @ 9:26 am

I'm from the Boston area, where "dahlia" definitely has an "ah" sound (as does "bath"). We do have a flower called a "day lily," and a lot of people named Daley who apparently haven't discovered any plants. And to complicate another issue, the Wisters and Wistars, down in Philadelphia, are actually the same family.

20. ### Jerry Friedman said,

December 28, 2015 @ 9:26 am

Liz Coleman and Gregory Kusnick: I've mostly heard dahlias talked about in Cleveland (before the NCVS got to my suburb). American Heritage and Merriam-Webster both give "al", then "ahl", then "ail", for what that's worth.

I've never heard anyone say "pine-size". If I ever said it, I'd probably try pretty hard to say it without a /t/.

January First-of-May: I don't have any tattoos, but I think the number of letters must be more important than the number of syllables.

21. ### Jerry Friedman said,

December 28, 2015 @ 9:30 am

Mr Punch: Where I live, in New Mexico, there are plants named after a Mr. Dale (because he didn't discover them), to the confusion of people just starting to learn some botany.

22. ### Amy Stoller said,

December 28, 2015 @ 9:53 am

Re: Gytha – Another variant of this name is Githa, as in Githa Sowerby, author of children's books and plays, including the wonderful Rutherford and Son. Most sources I have found say the English name Githa means "gift." (There are other names with the same spelling but entirely different origins and meanings.)

Pronunciation guidelines online vary to such a large extent that it is impossible to say without better research how it "should" be pronounced. My money is on /ˈɡɪðə/, although at one time I thought (I can't remember why!) that it was /ˈɡeɪ̯ðə/.

23. ### BlueLoom said,

December 28, 2015 @ 10:20 am

I once told a friend (born & raised in Glasgow but having lived in the US for some 40 or more years at the time) how delightful I found her pronunciation of Wednesday. She pronounced (ever so slightly) all of the letters in the word. She, however, denied that her pronunciation was any different from my "Wennsday" (US mid-Atlantic east coast).

24. ### Robert Coren said,

December 28, 2015 @ 10:40 am

@DIck Marglis's comment about "forcynthia" reminds me that, while I have always pronounced "forsythia" with /ɪ/ for the second vowel — possibly for no better reason than that my mother pronounced it that way — I know of no instance of the name "Forsyth" being pronounced that way, and I started to wonder in later life if I should be using /ɑɪ/ in the name of the plant. The fact that somebody else heard it as rhyming with "Cynthia", plus all the observations about the variability of pronunciation of Latinate plant names (and my having already noticed such anomalies as /fjuʃə/) leads me to think that I shouldn't worry about it.

Some plant/seed catalogues offer pronunciations for these names, presumably reflecting commonest usage. All my gardening life I've pronounced ageratum with /æ/ in the third syllable, but after hearing my sister-in-law say it with /ɛɪ/ I noticed that one such catalogue agreed with her.

For years, I thought that the name of shrubs in the genus Cotoneaster was pronounced like "cotton easter".

25. ### ErikMH said,

December 28, 2015 @ 12:37 pm

I’m an ex-military brat, and have lived in Texas, Arkansas, the Philippines, Colorado, Maryland, and in most New England states.

I still remember my surprise when, in the early ’70s, I first heard Jimmy Durante pronounce this plant pɔɪnˈsɛ.tə in his narration of the animated Christmas classic, Frosty the Snowman.

I don’t believe I have ever heard that pronunciation elsewhere, before or since.

26. ### BZ said,

December 28, 2015 @ 1:27 pm

I bet that people talk a lot more about poinsettias than about forsythias, so the pronunciation of the former is more rapidly evolving toward a more easily pronounceable form (and I expect the spelling to follow). Usually that type of thing isn't observed because there is a common easily pronounceable alternative to most plant names.

27. ### Nathan Myers said,

December 28, 2015 @ 1:56 pm

It seems as if names ending in "-etia" would be relevant to the topic.

28. ### Paul Nance said,

December 28, 2015 @ 2:45 pm

Then there is genus tradescantia (the spiderworts), whose Latinate pronunciation hides the fact that it honors John Tradescant.

29. ### Uly said,

December 28, 2015 @ 3:12 pm

(Actually, due to some complications of Middle English spelling, as far as the number of letters is concerned, Chaucer's version is, in fact, longer, by about a quarter.)

Well, for tattoos I only care about number of letters :D

30. ### Martha said,

December 28, 2015 @ 3:33 pm

I don't know why I think this, but it occurs to me that someone who says "poinsetta" also says "sherbert." (Probably because I say "poinsettia" and "sherbet.")

I'd always pronounced "dahlia" with the vowel in "pal." It wasn't until I was in my early 20s that I heard it with the "doll" pronunciation. I'm from Oregon; my "doll" friend lived in upstate New York until she was an adolescent, when her family moved to southern Oregon.

31. ### Jerry Friedman said,

December 28, 2015 @ 11:39 pm

For completeness, I should mention that in ancient days on the Tonight Show, Johnny Carson and Doc Severinsen argued every winter about the pronunciation of "poinsettia". Carson took the four-syllable side.

32. ### Guy said,

December 29, 2015 @ 1:02 pm

@Martha

I'm from the San Francisco Bay Area and was unaware that the /dæliə/ pronunciation existed until reading the comments on this post. Which isn't to say that I've never heard it, of course, I just may not have noticed it. I say /poɪ̯nsɛtiə/ and /ʃɚbɚt/.

33. ### Rodger C said,

December 29, 2015 @ 2:24 pm

A conversation from ~40 years ago:

She: "My father always pronounces 'forsythia' with an intrusive n."

Me (who had never heard this pronunciation): "Forsynthia?"

She: "Everybody I've told this knows where to put it!"

34. ### Eric P Smith said,

December 29, 2015 @ 8:22 pm

@BlueLoom

I'm with your Glasgow friend. I'm from Edinburgh (45 miles further east) and I confirm that the standard Scottish pronunciation of 'Wednesday' is [ˈwɛdⁿn̩zde]

35. ### Jim Scobbie said,

December 30, 2015 @ 5:24 am

Let's get /ˌpɔɪntˈsɛ.tɪə/ into the dictionary, so that I can swagger my personal pronunciation of shame. I'm glad to see others here have it too. In my case, I do not have a general [t] epenthesis in prince, etc. so this is not just one of a set, but has been acquired with a phonemic /t/, again probably due to analogy to high frequency point(s) rather than the absent poin(s). If only there were a coinsettia to check for a lack of /t/ in.

I have /r/ twice in sherbert, for what it's worth, but this is more likely connected to having coda /r/ in a number of inappropriate words thanks to perceptual reconstruction of missing coda /r/ in non-rhotic speech, but that's a different story in the UK to north american accents.

36. ### January First-of-May said,

December 30, 2015 @ 8:58 am

I have to note the fun fact that I personally do pronounce an extra [t] in "prince" – and also in "principal", after the "ac" in "accident" (sometimes), and in just about anything with -cent (cent, scent, ascent, descent, concentrate, … – though apparently not in "decent", and more paradoxically not in "percent"; and "accent" varies). I think there are a few others too, can't recall immediately.
For the most part (though apparently not always), this is probably due to me being used to spelling them with a Ц – it does not show up in "Princeton", and it does not show up in words ending in -sent (sent, assent, dissent, consent). OTOH, it shows up pretty much always* in the sequence "sce" (at least, when it's not pronounced "ske", as in "sceptic"). Not sure what happened with "percent", though – maybe it was a word that I learned correctly very early.

The above is entirely unrelated to the word "poinsettia"… having tried to mentally pronounce the word reading all of these discussions, I realized that I'd probably say something like "pwahn-SET-tia" (note the French-looking first syllable).

*) even in "ascertain", even though it's not in "certain"

37. ### Daniel von Brighoff said,

December 30, 2015 @ 11:01 pm

I'm well acquainted with forsythias (they're a very common ornamental in Missouri and my father is a horticulturalist) and I was probably in my late teens before I realised "forsynthia" wasn't the prescribed pronunciation. I'm not sure if mine was a common variant in my area or something I learned from my Marylander father (probably the latter, since the number of people I would've been discussing shrubs with besides him is tiny).

FWIW, that was about the same time I realised there were two i's (and only two t's) in "poinsettia" and some people even pronounced the second one. It was many more years, however, before I would learn that most people have only three syllables in "Schefflera". (I said–and still say–"shiffelera", perhaps under influence of "chifforobe", a piece of furniture which stood in the same room as the houseplant.)

And I still say "sherbert".

38. ### Nathan Myers said,

December 31, 2015 @ 6:34 am

@DvB: It sounds like this is all your fault, then.

39. ### Matthew Hemming said,

December 31, 2015 @ 9:37 am

Dick said, in part:

"The examples I offer to go with your Wednesday and Worcester are bouillon and lingerie, the apparently "correct" (i.e., French) pronunciation of which would be seen as laughably affected or just plain wrong in all varieties of AmE that I'm familiar with."

In Canada many people pronounce French-derived words in a French fashion, regardless of whether the speaker is fluent in French. Along with your examples are words like "foyer."

In our dialects this is not affectation, it's just how (many of us) learn the words.

P.S. Hearing "lingerie" pronounced in a non-French way suggests, to my ear, an unsophisticated or "rube" speaker. Not a fair assessment, of course, but my reflex reaction.

40. ### Robert Coren said,

December 31, 2015 @ 10:56 am

I'm not entirely clear what Dick means when he refers to "'correct' (i.e., French) pronunciation", or, rather, what it's being contrasted to for the cited words. I don't think I've ever heard anyone pronounce lingerie with /lın/ in the first syllable; mostly you'll get /læn/, because English-speakers are not going to do nasalized vowels. Again, with bouillon I assume the difference is whether one nasalizes the final "on"; the occurrence of an English-style l-sound would strike me as weird in the extreme.

41. ### Dick Margulis said,

December 31, 2015 @ 11:18 am

Robert, I was referring to the last syllable, in the case of lingerie, which all USians I know pronounce as if it were spelled é instead of ie. In the case of bouillon, I was referring to the first syllable, in which the soup, bouillon, is pronounced the same as the gold brick, bullion.

42. ### chh said,

December 31, 2015 @ 12:39 pm

@M.N.

That's an example of a fairly reliable type of stop epenthesis that happens between a nasal and a fricative, like in 'hamster'. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epenthesis#As_a_variable_rule

43. ### Jimbino said,

December 31, 2015 @ 1:55 pm

44. ### Martha said,

December 31, 2015 @ 7:13 pm

Guy:

I'm sure tons of people mix and match their poinsettia and sherbet pronunciations. It's just the first thing that popped into my head!

45. ### Terry Hunt said,

January 4, 2016 @ 9:48 am

Yet further to "Gytha": I imagine many Terry Pratchett readers imagine this rather rare name was his own coinage, but in fact the character was named for his (and my) acquaintance, the late Gytha North, sometime resident of Brighton and prominent member (we would say "BNF" for "Big Name Fan") of the UK SF Fandom community.