Monday, 27 June 2011


I was in a committee meeting over the weekend at which — amongst many other topics — we were discussing how much we ought to pay a visiting speaker. What sort of honorarium should we offer? I noticed with interest and surprise that the person who introduced this topic pronounced the word as ˌhɒnəˈreəriəm, with an initial h-sound.

I’ve always myself said this word as ˌɒnəˈreəriəm , without h, just like its congeners hono(u)r, hono(u)rable, honorary, honest etc, and I assumed that that was what everyone said.

But a quick straw poll when we were having coffee afterwards showed that four out of the ten people present said they preferred the pronunciation with h. This variant is not recorded in any dictionary that I know of.

I suppose we can relate it to the fact that h is silent in heir and heiress but not in the etymologically linked inherit, heredity and heritage. Perhaps some speakers do not ‘feel’ the etymological link between honorarium and the other hono(u)r(-) words, so that there is less pressure to treat them all identically.

Added to that there is the understandable tendency to use a spelling pronunciation for any word that may be relatively unfamiliar, or first encountered in writing rather than in speech.


  1. The h- pronunciation also makes sense etymologically because honorarium is clearly a direct loanword from Latin, rather than borrowed via French like honour and the others. (At least it very strongly appears to be.)

  2. According to OED the word goes back to Late Latin honōrārium. In French it's honoraire. OED lists both pronunciations - with and without /h/.

  3. @Pete:

    But h was silent from pretty early in the history of Latin, at least in common speech. Arena ought etymologically to be harena, and humerus ("forearm") ought to be umerus.

    In fact Latin grammarians had discussions about which words ought to be spelled with H, and which without, not dissimilar to this conversation we are having right now.

  4. @vp: Yes, but still, the normal rule in English is to pronounce all initial H's in loanwords taken directly from Latin.

    So we don't usually need to have these discussions about Latin loanwords.