Wednesday 15 February 2012


Do you ever use desiccated coconut, when making a cake for example? If so, how do you pronounce the verb to desiccate?

Perhaps the more usual question about this word is how to spell it. The only pronunciation I have ever heard, as far as I remember, is ˈdesɪkeɪt. This stressing and vowel pattern leads people to think it should be spelt dessicate. It’s only those few of us with a knowledge of Latin who immediately see it as containing the adjective siccus ‘dry’, which explains its unexpected spelling.

But let’s return to the question of its pronunciation. Surprisingly, the OED tells us that until 1864 deˈsiccate was the only stressing given in dictionaries. The OED itself (in the second edition, 1989) still gives priority to the pronunciation dɪˈsɪkeɪt. I wonder if anybody alive actually says that, or indeed if there was anyone who still said it twenty years ago.

For the historical change in stress the OED refers us to contemplate. Shakespeare apparently stressed that word as we do today (ˈkɒntəmpleɪt).
When this is known, then to divide the times:
So many hours must I tend my flock;
So many hours must I take my rest;
So many hours must I contemplate;
So many hours must I sport myself;
So many days my ewes have been with young;
So many weeks ere the poor fools will wean:
So many years ere I shall shear the fleece:
So minutes, hours, days, months, and years,
Pass'd over to the end they were created,
Would bring white hairs unto a quiet grave.
Ah, what a life were this! how sweet! how lovely!
Henry VI, Part III: II, 5
Nevertheless, the OED tells us,
the orthoepists generally have conˈtemplate down to third quarter of 19th cent.; since that time ˈcontemplate has more and more prevailed, and conˈtemplate begins to have a flavour of age.
The OED continues (in the second edition, 1989, still)
This is the common tendency with all verbs in -ate. Of these, the antepenult stress is historical in all words in which the penult represents a short Latin syllable, as acˈcelerate, ˈanimate, ˈfascinate, ˈmachinate, ˈmilitate, or one prosodically short or long, as in ˈcelebrate, ˈconsecrate, ˈemigrate; regularly also when the penult has a vowel long in Latin, as ˈalienate, ˈaspirate, conˈcatenate, ˈdenudate, eˈlaborate, ˈindurate, ˈpersonate, ˈruinate (Latin aliēno, aspīro, etc.). But where the penult has two or three consonants giving positional length, the stress has historically been on the penult, and its shift to the antepenult is recent or still in progress, as in acervate, adumbrate, alternate, compensate, concentrate, condensate, confiscate, conquassate, constellate, demonstrate, decussate, desiccate, enervate, exacerbate, exculpate, illustrate, inculcate, objurgate, etc., all familiar with penult stress to middle-aged men. The influence of the noun of action in -ation is a factor in the change; thus the analogy of ˌconseˈcration, ˈconsecrate, etc., suggests ˌdemonˈstration, ˈdemonstrate. But there being no remonstration in use, reˈmonstrate, supported by reˈmonstrance, keeps the earlier stress.

Except that nowadays remonstration is in use, and the stress pattern ˈremonstrate has accordingly become usual (in BrE at least). The OED acknowledges this, commenting in its third edition (2009) as follows.
N.E.D. (1906) gives the pronunciation as (rĭmǫ•nstreit) /rɪˈmɒnstreɪt/, but in O.E.D. (ed. 2, 1989) this is marked as being ‘older’ and a pronunciation with first-syllable stress is given as the dominant one. Editions of D. Jones Eng. Pronouncing Dict. up to and including 1963 record the pronunciation with stress on the second syllable as the dominant one, and this is still indicated as an alternative pronunciation even in British English in subsequent editions.
True. But nowadays we’re fed up with football managers who ˈremənstreɪt with the referee. Aren’t we?


  1. The change in remonstrate must be fairly new in AmE as well. Both Merriam-Webster dictionaries list both pronunciations, but (which is continually updated) gives the initial-stress pronunciation first, whereas NID3 (1961) gives it second. AHD4 (2001) and RHD2 (1997) both list the penultimate-stress pronunciation as the only one. I myself use the initial-stress pronunciation, probably by analogy with demonstrate.

  2. The second edition of 1989 involved merely (merely!) digitizing the original NED and its supplements (the latter from the 1970s, I believe), and merging the entries together. Entries like 'desiccate' are therefore essentially as they were in the original work, 1897 in this case - unless the 1970s supplements had noted any changes.

    See also the entries for 'majuscule' and 'minuscule'.

    1. Quite so, and the supplements (there were two more, in 1993 and 1997) included only new words and old words used in new senses. So the new 3rd edition is really the true second edition, because it is the first time that each entry has been thoroughly reconsidered since its original OED1 publication.

      From this table you can often determine when a particular entry was published, though you have to figure out first whether it is OED1 or OED2. The dates of the latest quotations are usually determinative.

  3. In John's final OED quote:

    For (rĭmǫ•nstreit) read (rĭmǫ•nstreⁱt).

    1. Thanks - now corrected. (Copy-and-paste didn't copy italicization and superscription.)

    2. Actually, the ǫ is italicized as well in the original!

      Also, I think the OED uses U+00B7 MIDDLE DOT rather than U+2022 BULLET, but you say you used copy-and-paste?

  4. The OED to 1989 list divides in ways I find interesting

    1. acervate, adumbrate, condensate, conquassate, constellate, decussate, enervate, exculpate, objurgate,

    These are words that we would not normally use outside the context of formal writing or very formal speech.

    2. compensate, concentrate, confiscate, demonstrate, illustrate,

    These, I think, are words that most of us would use in most styles — although we might avoid them when consciously employing a simple style.

    3. exacerbate, inculcate

    For some speakers these are as rare and formal as list [1]. To others they are more like list [2]. (Some might include enervate or exculpate here.)

    4. alternate

    As well as the verb with this spelling, there's also the adjective. so two pronunciations are used to distinguish them. As it happens, it's the adjective that has the stressed tern.

    5. dessicate

    This is commonly used in the fixed expression desiccated coconut . It's in a domestic context and for me at least there's no alternative that I would use in a simpler style. Dried coconut is not synonymous, and I'd say dried and grated coconut only in a very simple style.

    I learned the expression from my mother talking about baking — years before I could read. That would be over sixty years ago.

    I suspect that until last century the people who used list [1] words tended to have studied Latin. They are far more often written than spoken. In the unusual event of hearing them, I would be surprised but not shocked to hear them with stress on the stem. List [2] words can be heard spoken all the time. I would be both shocked and surprised to hear them pronounced with the old stress pattern.

    1. I've never heard of "alternate" with a stressed tern. I'm only familiar with the adjective ending with /It/ or /@t/ and the verb ending in /eIt/, all with initial stress.

    2. Might I suggest, then, Lazar, that you invest in a pronunciation dictionary (for example, my LPD)? There you would discover that this is a well-known BrE/AmE difference.

  5. I'm only familiar with the adjective ending with /It/ or /@t/

    Me too, but for me it has a stressed tern.


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