One of the great language mysteries is the way words change in some significant
way almost without reason. On the other hand, that's the way it works in much
of life. When I was a kid, people just threw their used candy wrappers and beer cans
and soda bottles and French fry containers on the ground or out the car window when
they were done. Nobody batted an eye. Now people will chide you for such behavior,
students will band together for highway cleanup, and recycling bins are ubiquitous
Fifty years is all it took.
When I was in grade nine, my English teacher asked me to read from a text out loud
to the class. In that excerpt was the word "primer", meaning a book that introduces
a subject to its reader at a fairly elemental level, especially in the instruction of
reading skills. The sentence may have been something like this:
The Dick and Jane reading primers were popular in the 1950s.
When I read the sentence, I pronounced the word as "pry-mer" with a long i sound,
like the word for what you put on a wall before you paint it. My teacher looked
disappointed in me and told me such books were pronounced as if the spelling
was "primmer". I never forgot my mortification, and I never slipped up again.
Here is one explanation:
The short 'i' tends to be used in American English, referring to the introductory textbooks.
I have heard it quite often from good quality US media outlets (NPR etc.) so would assume
it is regarded as standard. The British English is pronounced with a long 'i' (as in miner).
The Oxford English Dictionary, the ultimate authority, apparently says the following:
The ‘long i’ version is new, and the original and historic pronunciation is the ‘short i’ version,
which America has retained more than Britain has.
But I don't think "primmer" will survive. I never hear people pronounce the word that way
anymore, even among the educated. And just as with "acumen" (see the last Words entry),
people will start looking at you as undereducated if you pronounce a word as no one else
The really confusing word is "Caribbean"--yes the sea to our south. Home to those tropical
islands, Castro's Cuba, Hemingway's fishing exploits, and devastating hurricanes with oddball
When I was growing up, there was basically one way to pronounce it_ "KAR-uh-BEE'-un", with
the emphasis decidedly on the first and third syllables. The double "B" in the center of the word
reflects the word-formation rule indicating the need to pronounce the word in that fashion . That pronunciation has been around since 1772. If it were spelled with a double "R" instead of a
double "B", the word would normally be pronounced as it is usually pronounced today.
The popular pronunciation today is, of course, kuh-RIB'-be-un. All the commercials I see
for the cruise line pronounces the name of the company as Royal Caribbean, with the
"kuh-RIB'-be-un" pronunciation. That variant started making inroads in the 1930s and
is ubiquitous today on television commercials for exotic ocean cruises and on game shows
for the big prizes.
Update: Just watched a 1952 film, Affair in Trinidad, and everybody says kuh-RIB'-be-un! (7/19)
I never heard it when I was young, but I never hear anything else today.
WITH ONE EXCEPTION!
Everyone, and I mean everyone, when mentioning the Disney movie franchise based on a
Disney World ride says Pirates of the Caribbean with the last word pronounced "KAR-uh-
BEE'-un"! What gives?
Most people living in the islands pronounce the name in the older, traditional way. But with
so much of language dependent on what appears in the media, I can't imagine the original
pronunciation will see much use any longer in this country--except when Walt Disney is
involved! Go figure.