When I was a child the range of fruit and vegetables available in the shops was very limited compared with what is on offer today. Mostly, they were just those that grow in Britain — apples, pears, raspberries, redcurrants, blackcurrants, plums, cherries, blackberries, gooseberries; carrots, peas, cabbage, marrows, onions, leeks, turnips and broad and runner beans. I think the only exotics ordinary people were familiar with were oranges, lemons, bananas and melons, and during the war and the post-war austerity even they were not to be had.
It wasn’t until I was studying for my master’s in London that I first tasted a green pepper, or discovered that marrows picked early can be eaten as courgettes (AmE zucchini). I didn’t discover aubergines (AmE eggplant) until 1960, when I first visited Greece. I think I first ate a mango in 1966, when I visited Jamaica for my PhD fieldwork.
In the late fifties, when I was an undergraduate in Cambridge, we sometimes had a meal in an Indian restaurant. So I had probably eaten cooked aubergine, but without knowing what it looked like raw, and under the name brinjal.
We also sometimes ate in Chinese restaurants. There, for dessert, we often chose lychees. These were certainly tinned; the actual fruits wouldn’t have become available in British supermarkets until thirty or forty years later.
We called this fruit a ˌlaɪˈtʃiː, or perhaps ˈlaɪtʃiː. It was written on the menu as lychee. This spelling, and the pronunciation with aɪ in the first syllable, are also what you find in Daniel Jones’s EPD. When the time came to compile LPD, I recorded this word in line with my own usage and DJ’s, with the spelling lychee and a main pron ˌlaɪˈtʃiː. I’m aware, though, that some people pronounce the first syllable with iː rather than aɪ, and some people spell it litchi.
What about AmE? I note that Webster’s Collegiate prefers the spelling lychee, and gives both ˈliː- and ˈlaɪ- as possible pronunciations.
The OED, however, spells the word litchi and gives only the pronunciation ˈliːtʃiː.
The OED’s version corresponds well to the Linnaean name of the tree that bears the fruit, Litchi chinensis. The French name, too, is indeed litchi, and the German name Litschi.
The OED doesn’t make much of an effort about the word’s etymology, saying just
Etymology: < Chinese li-chi. First used as a generic name in P. Sonnerat Voyage aux Indes Orientales (1782) III. 255.
Research shows that the Mandarin name is 荔枝, which would nowadays be written (in Pinyin) as lìzhī.
So where does the prevailing, or at least widespread, pronunciation with aɪ come from? Is it just a spelling pronunciation, an English misinterpretation of the ambiguous y or i of the spelling?
Not necessarily. Further research reveals the interesting fact that the Japanese name of the fruit is not the *riichi that you might expect, but reishi. Here’s part of the relevant article in the Japanese Wikipedia.
The claim is that the Japanese name comes not from Mandarin but from Cantonese, where the pronunciation is lai6ji1. Assuming this to be true, here is a ready explanation of our English pronunciation ˌlaɪˈtʃiː. Our forebears must have become acquainted with the fruit, and its local name, through contacts with the Cantonese-speaking former British colony of Hong Kong.
Perhaps readers versed in matters sinological could confirm this.