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I have heard this word pronounced somewhat similar to [the River] Nile-ism as well as similar to Neal-ism. The former is obviously because of the German or possibly Russian pronunciation, but how should it be pronounced in English?

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Has nothing to do with Russian pronounciation. It's nigil'izm here with 'g' like in 'globe' –  Philoto Jun 21 '11 at 17:32
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First thing that popped in my head when I read this question title: Lebowski. –  tenfour Jun 21 '11 at 18:37

9 Answers 9

up vote 7 down vote accepted

I'm afraid I vary my pronunciation of "nihilist / nihilism" to suit the sentence and my audience. "Nee-(h)il-ist", with a very soft "h", feels most correct to me, but for people who haven't studied philosophy (or who forgot it as soon as they left college), "ny-il-ist" is easily recognized from "annihilation" (I have never heard anyone pronounce that word as "an-nee-(h)il-ation").

My favorite sighting (hearing?) of "nee-(h)il-ist" is in the (NSFW) song 88 Lines About 44 Women by The Nails; at about 4:12 he mentions #39:

Terri didn't give a s**t
She was just a nihilist

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LOL fantastic lyric! –  Joe Blow Jun 21 '11 at 20:58
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I doubt there is any /h/ at all in your pronunciation; English speakers don't pronounce /h/ between vowels when the second vowel is unstressed. –  Kosmonaut Jun 22 '11 at 17:16

I remember from high-school Latin the pronunciation of "nihil" meaning nothing (unless i misremember) - nihil pronounced "ni" (as in nit-picking) and "hil" as in "hill of beans". With the stress on the "ni" of course.

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There are two exceptions to Latin pronunciation. (I should say, two main exceptions. There may be others.) "H" is silent except in two words: mihi and nihil, where it represents [k]. Of course, the medieval spellings 'michi' and 'nichil' are now considered incorrect. I have heard nihilism pronounced with a [g] or [k] and it's not incorrect.

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The OED says "nigh-ill-ism", but Latin would have been "knee-hill-ism", so I suppose you can just choose the one you want, and back it up with the one that supports it.

On the extremely few occasions when I've said it, I've gone with "nigh~~".

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Something to remember is

it's just like annihilate,

which has a pretty agreed pronunciation.

As a young child, I thought nihilism was pronounced "nil-ism" (sort of makes sense) as I had only read it!

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Just to add to the confusion, I met the word coming from latin rather than philosophy, so I pronounce it /nɪhɪlɪsm/, with the same short "i" vowel in each of the three syllables and a distinct (if soft) h between the first two. Nihil mutabitur and all that.

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Either nih-hil-ism (patterned after the latin from which it derives), or naye-il-ism or naye-hil-ism.

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I've always pronounced the word "naye-ihl-ism", with a silent h but an elision between i pronounced like you would say the letter name and the "short i" sound "ih".

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Nile-ism. (at least in North America)

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This is probably correct, but I'm in favor of a hyper-correct NI-hill-ism. –  JSBձոգչ Jun 21 '11 at 17:27
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Well, 'annihilation' does sound similar to 'Nile'. So I'd agree with this answer. –  Philoto Jun 21 '11 at 17:34
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Well, the Latin may be what it is, this is how 99% of Americans say it :) –  Andrew Jun 21 '11 at 17:35
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And how can 99% of Americans be wrong? ;-) –  Peter K. Jun 21 '11 at 17:45
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I would say in careful speech it's more like "nigh-uh-lism" (/naɪəlɪzəm/) than "nile-ism" (/naɪlɪzəm/) but it's hard to distinguish the two in rapid speech. –  nohat Jun 21 '11 at 18:13

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