Words Whose Pronunciation Has Changed Over Time

As languages change, so do pronunciations. Here are some words that have gone through relatively recent shifts in pronunciation or whose spelling is a mystery unless one knows a bit about the history of how they were pronounced. There are also a few words where the only thing that has changed is the stress of the syllables. In most cases, rhyming words or phrases, which are just useful for their sound and are not intended to mean anything, are given to provide a sense of how these different pronunciations sounded.

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definitions & notes only words
  1. ration
    a fixed portion that is allotted
    To encourage conservation, districts have been rationing water and imposing fines that will quickly double, triple or quadruple typical water bills.
    —New York Times (May 8, 2014
    This was at one time pronounced to rhyme with nation, but sometime after World War I, the current pronunciation, which rhymes with fashion, began to predominate.
  2. trough
    a long narrow shallow receptacle
    The roses are housed in enormous plastic greenhouses—49 in all, some covering a hectare and a half—and planted in long troughs.
    —Economist (Apr 3, 2014)
    As you can probably guess by the spelling, trough once was pronounced with a hard "gh" sound, as in Scottish loch before its modern pronunciation, where the "gh" has been softened to an "f" sound, so it rhymes with other words this has happened to, like cough.
  3. atone
    turn away from sin or do penitence
    Shortstop Starlin Castro atoned for a throwing error in the third by hitting two home runs for the second time this season.
    —Chicago Tribune (Apr 27, 2014)
    This one is notable because the second syllable of this word, the one that sounds like own, is how the numeral "one" used to be pronounced until the 14th century, when the one we know today, rhyming with done, began to take hold. It wouldn't completely displace the other pronunciation for a few hundred years, until around the 18th century.
  4. antique
    made in or typical of earlier times and valued for its age
    The car was an immaculately restored antique, its exterior painted a Smokey Bear brown with an orange stripe down the side.
    —New York Times (May 16, 2014)
    Originally this word rhymed with frantic because it was considered parallel to antic, a word of similar origin meaning "old and grotesque." The current pronunciation, rhyming with mystique is modeled on the French pronunciation and dates from the 18th century.
  5. quandary
    state of uncertainty in a choice between unfavorable options
    The quandary for companies is how to meet the idiosyncratic needs of millions of different customers?
    —Forbes (Feb 28, 2014)
    Originally the second syllable was stressed, roughly to rhyme with yon fairy. In modern pronunciation, it rhymes with laundry.
  6. algebra
    the mathematics of generalized arithmetical operations
    Lots of people will wince when they think back to grappling with Pythagoras and being bamboozled by algebra at school.
    —BBC (Apr 30, 2014)
    The word originally had stress on the second syllable, rhyming with gal Debra before the stress shifted to the first syllable.
  7. schedule
    a list of times at which things are planned to occur
    Below is the compiled schedule for Friday’s major events happening in and around the area.
    —Seattle Times (May 16, 2014)
    Although originally pronounced like said you'll, in modern times there are two pronunciations. One, associated with Britain, is "SHED-yul" while the other, American, pronunciation is "SKED-yul." It is interesting to note that while Americans tend to associate anything British with being proper, it is the American pronunciation of this word that more closely imitates the original Greek root.
  8. humor
    the quality of being funny
    Valerie’s more coherent moments led to incredible bursts of humor, biting satire, fascinating insights and uncanny accuracy about the world.
    —New York Times (Apr 23, 2014)
    The word dates from the mid-14th century, but a pronunciation including the "h" is very recent, circa the early-20th century.
  9. blush
    become rosy or reddish
    It’s a procedural mixed with a conspiracy thriller, mixed with melodrama that would make a daytime soap opera blush.
    —Slate (Mar 5, 2014)
    The vowel in blush was originally a short "oo" sound, roughly rhyming with koosh , before taking on its modern pronunciation, rhyming with plush.
  10. business
    the principal activity in one's life to earn money
    John Paul DeJoria, the billionaire entrepreneur behind Paul Mitchell shampoo and Patron tequila is jumping into the wireless phone business.
    —Forbes Jun 10, 2014
    Until the 17th century, this word was pronounced with three syllables, so it rhymed with dizzyness, as opposed to the modern two-syllable pronunciation.
  11. balcony
    a platform projecting from the wall of a building
    Annemarie stood on the balcony of the apartment with her parents and sister, and watched.
    —Number the Stars
    Until the early 19th century, the accent was on the second syllable, so that the word roughly rhymed with baloney. The modern pronunciation with the first-syllable accented, rhymes with falcon-y.
  12. tomb
    a place for the burial of a corpse
    After learning where he was buried, she tried to transfer his body to the family tomb.
    —BBC Jun 6, 2014
    The "b" was pronounced in this word until the 14th century. Prior to that point it had been spelled tumbe. Currently it is pronounced to rhyme with womb.
  13. cognizance
    the state or act of having knowledge of
    These good women lacked an appropriate sense of adventure—or perhaps a proper cognizance of our dwindling supply of big nights.
    —Slate Nov 12, 2012
    This comes from Latin cognoscere, "to get to know," and entered English through French, where it lost the "g". The "g" was restored to English spelling in the 15th century. Although the word had always been pronounced without a "g" sound, over time people began pronouncing it to match the spelling.
  14. jaunty
    having a cheerful, lively, and self-confident air
    The slipcovers on the dining room chairs have a row of jaunty bright-red buttons running down the back.
    —New York Times Jun 6, 2014
    This spelling is an attempt to mimic the pronunciation of the French word for "nice, pleasing" gentil, to rhyme with pontee. Current meaning is " easy and sprightly in manner" and is pronounced to rhyme with gaunty.
  15. template
    a model or standard for making comparisons
    And then – as much as Dylan, perhaps, and certainly before Dylan – set the template for the pop star who reinvents himself.
    —The Guardian (May 14, 2014)
    This was pronounced to rhyme with kemp-fit until the late 19th/early 20th century when a pronunciation rhyming with kemp-grate took over.
Created on May 16, 2014 (updated October 3, 2019)

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