Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Every now and then I get caught out by a spellchecker around the word asterisk.

I can accept that this is the correct spelling, however I hear a lot of people pronouncing it as asterix also.

Is it just me and this is a gradual changing of the word and most people are doing it or am I hearing things because I make the mistake myself?

Is the popularity of Asterix the Gaul responsible for this mispronunciation and spelling or is it due to natural changes that happen in any language?

share|improve this question
6  
As @Robusto says, the sk/ks thing means the word is open to mispronunciation. Asterix certainly doesn't help. I guess definitive proof would be if people have the same problem pronouncing Obelix (oops, no sorry, obelisk!) –  Benjol Jan 27 '11 at 6:20
3  
Do as the INTERCAL people do, and pronounce it "splat". –  Brian Hooper Jan 27 '11 at 6:33
    
IIRC, in French, "Asterix" is pronounced ending in "reeks". Not like that would necessarily matter to an English speaker, though. –  Jason Plank Jan 27 '11 at 9:15
1  
@Benjol, @Jason Plank: The mistake is common in French too, and also for obelisk. –  Frédéric Grosshans Jan 27 '11 at 11:16
1  
This may not be just about pronunciation. I think I know people who, if asked to spell "the name of the little star thingy" would say A S T E R I X. –  user16269 Apr 27 '12 at 11:24
add comment

4 Answers

up vote 18 down vote accepted

It is not just you, and it is a fairly common error in pronunciation in many parts of the English-speaking world.

Here is an interesting usage note on asterisk from the New Oxford American Dictionary (2nd Edition on my computer):

Avoid pronouncing this word |ˈastəˌriks| or |ˈastəˌrik|, as many regard such pronunciations as uneducated.

and a related one from the Oxford Dictionaries Online:

Even though asterisk does not look like a tricky word to pronounce, it can be problematic. In both its singular and plural forms , it is often mispronounced as if it ends with -rix. Pronounced correctly, it ends with a -risk sound when singular and -risks when plural

share|improve this answer
6  
Phoneme flips like this sk/ks are historically common. My wife studied this in grad school, and has remarked on how in Old English, the green stuff on the ground was "garss", and the things that fly around in the sky were "brids". –  Bob Murphy Jan 27 '11 at 7:05
add comment

The phenomenon is called metathesis, and it is actually not that uncommon in English and many other languages. Note how you say three, but not threeteen or thrid; you say thirteen and third instead. That's because thirteen and third have undergone metathesis from Old English þreotene and þridda.

Many languages have words that show this phenomenon, and some use it as a regular part of their grammar (e.g. the Fur language). The process of metathesis has altered the shape of many familiar words in the English language, as well.
[...]
Metathesis is responsible for the most common types of speech errors, such as children acquiring spaghetti as pasketti. The metathesized pronunciation of ask as ax /ˈæks/ goes back to Old English days, when ascian and axian/acsian were both in use.
[...]
The process has shaped many English words historically. Bird and horse came from Old English bryd and hros; wasp and hasp were also written wæps and hæps.

So, to answer your question, yes, that's a natural change that happens in many languages. Wikipedia even expressly mentions asteriskasterix /ˈæstərɪks/ as an example of metathesis, along with many others. It can start off as a slip of the tongue, or as deliberate "laziness" if you will, but once the "wrong" pronunciation gets sufficiently established among native speakers, you can no longer call it wrong from the linguistics standpoint. As one of our linguists once put it elsewhere, "metathesis can be done in error, but ultimately, if the alternate form becomes established in some dialect, it is hard to argue that every person doing it is making an error." Again, not many people nowadays would argue that thirteen is a speech error. Whether or not the same will happen to asteriks, is, of course, pure speculation.

share|improve this answer
3  
There was I, sailing on the MV Hrossay, to Hrossay, the Isle of Horses, and it never occurred to wonder why the Isle of Horses was called so. –  Brian Hooper Jan 27 '11 at 12:46
2  
Cross-linking: Why is “ask” sometimes pronounced “aks”? –  RegDwigнt Mar 14 '11 at 19:39
1  
How is that laissez-faire, anarchistic philosophy even remotely defensible? Based on that premise, it is hard to argue that pronouncing licorice as "lik-rish" is not illogical, non-phonetic and an error? Wow. What's next then? "Me and him should of went to the store" becomes acceptable rather than triply erroneous? –  HoggyDog Sep 30 '11 at 23:43
2  
"Me and him shoulda went" works just fine, when spoken, for many people, such as in my American English dialect (though it might be inappropriate when a formal register is demanded, such as in academic writing). However, this issue has precious little to do with the question on asterisk, other than that some of these phenomena may co-occur in a dialect. –  aedia λ Oct 1 '11 at 0:23
add comment

People who pronounce it asterix pronounce it wrong.

However, it is common in some parts and subcultures of the U.S. for people to reverse the ending -sk sound. So they will say "He axed me a question" instead of "He asked me a question." Some years ago I was producing a TV spot with a well known African-American soul singer doing the voiceover. He could not say the word asks in the script, so we had to do an edit and switch the word.

share|improve this answer
1  
Haha, the axe/ask is a classic, too, in some other parts of the English-speaking world! Indeed, the -sk could be difficult for some, especially when speaking fast or pluralizing! Ever heard axe in the example: "She always asks me for help"? ;) Sometimes, it's just easier to say ax than asx!! –  Jimi Oke Jan 27 '11 at 2:29
    
For background I come from Australia. I don't pronounce any other word with the reverse ending. I would argue that this is more prevalent than just people who mispronounce similar words. I also work in IT with websites so I hear the word quite often. –  xiaohouzi79 Jan 27 '11 at 2:30
    
@xiaohouzi79: You're right, the mispronunciation of asterisk is rather more prevalent than some other words. –  Robusto Jan 27 '11 at 2:41
5  
@Jimi, @Robusto was wrongly accused of using wrong wrong :) –  Benjol Jan 27 '11 at 6:19
3  
@Jimi: "As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, the verb form spelled 'ax', and meaning 'To call upon any one for information, or an answer', originated more than a thousand years ago in Old English" — Language Log –  RegDwigнt Jan 27 '11 at 9:43
show 8 more comments

It is true that there are some folk out there who feel one pronunciation is wrong. However, I have to disagree with the absolutist attitude of a lot of the answers have.

In the software engineering circles I run in, either pronunciation is commonly heard, and both are considered perfectly acceptable. It may be true that a few folks in the writing community feel otherwise, but programmers use the word far more than writers/publishers/editors do these days. It is used extensively in most programming languages for multiplication, pointer operations, and occasionally exponentiation. So if you use the word exclusively in those circles, either pronunciation is generally accepted.

Perhaps the dictionaries will catch up with this common usage at some point, or perhaps the absolutist position will ultimately prevail. Time will tell.

share|improve this answer
    
Yeah, and I bet you can find power engineers who say "nucular" too. Doesn't make it right, though. As another software guy, I suspect you're mistaking tact for acceptance. –  peterG Feb 15 at 1:39
add comment

protected by Jasper Loy Apr 10 '12 at 8:47

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality answers, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site.

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.