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In the question "Is there a name for words which are pronounced differently depending on which definition is being used?" it was suggested by two people that when the word "fillet" is used to describe a thin strip of leather, it is a different word than when "fillet" is used to describe a thin strip of salmon, because the pronunciation differs.

The culinary pronunciation is "fil-AY," while the engineering pronunciation is "FILL-it."

This seems VERY strange to me. Especially because the pronunciation apparently doesn't differ in British English, even though it does in American English.

Are the phrases "salmon fillet" and "leather fillet" using two different words to describe a thin strip of material, even though they mean the same thing, and have the same etymology? It seems weird to think of a word essentially being a synonym to itself.

Also, if those two versions of "fillet" are different words, then are they the same word when they are being used by a British speaker?

This all seems very confusing.

Addendum:

In response to an email I sent to the editors of the online Mirriam-Webster Dictionary, I received the following reply (in part)

In the case of "fillet", I would argue that those are actually two different words. They may have the same etymology, but in current English they are homographs and heteronyms.


Joshua S. Guenter, Ph.D. Editor of Pronunciation

Although it initially seemed strange to me, I think I'm getting my head around how the "thin strip of material" definition of fillet is in the process of, or has finished, evolving from one word into two different words.

Thank you to all of you.

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    I'm a AmE speaker, I've never heard of a "leather fillet" nor heard anyone use the word "fillet" in any sense other than the culinary one, where it's pronounced "fil-LAY". I believe BrE speakers have consciously rejected the "Francophone" pronunciation and pronounce "fillet" as it is spelled: "fill-let". You also apparently use it in a broader sense of a "generic thin strip". We (AmE speakers) would likely call what you're describing as a "leather fillet" a "leather strap". The term for a word with multiple meanings and pronunciations is "homonym", though it's used inconsistently. – Dan Bron Mar 5 '15 at 0:40
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    @DanBron See freemansupply.com/FreemanLeatherFill.htm Fillet is a machining and engineering term as well as a culinary term. – Bret Wood Mar 5 '15 at 0:42
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    In the USA, it's salmon filet(s). Single L, not double LL. Though salmon fillet(s) is also used, apparently. – John Lawler Mar 5 '15 at 0:51
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    It will try. That's just Google. There are approximately the same number of hits. Given that there are lots of English dialects, and that English spelling makes no sense at all, why not just give up and go with the flow? That's what everybody else does, after all. – John Lawler Mar 5 '15 at 1:07
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    @BretWood: You buried the lead, then. – Robusto Mar 5 '15 at 1:41
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Use "filet" when you are trying to use the French word for "fillet". "Filet mignon" is a French phrase and hence "filet" is pronounced "fill-ay". Fillet of salmon or salmon fillet is an English phrase and here the word in question is pronounced "fill-itt". I have no idea about the etymology.

In my British English experience, I have only ever heard the word "filet" in reference to French-named dishes, but here in the US, I have certainly heard the word "fillet" pronounced as "fill-ay" to the point that I was once reprimanded by a waiter who told me I must pronounce "fillet" as "fill-ay". Pretty sure I didn't tip much that night.

0

Here in New Zealand I have heard it primarily as an English "-et" verb, with the derived nouns having the same pronunciation. "After I've got this red cod filleted, I'll throw the fillets into the pan." "When I've finished filleting this timber, I'm going to nail the fillets over the gaps between the sheets of ply." "I've got a job at the mill as a filleter." And (spoken very quickly and rhythmically) "I'll hev a couple a' fillets a' lemin fush an' a scoop a' chups please."

In our clipped NZ dialect (Kiwinglush?) it is more natural to say fill-UT-id, fill-ITS, fill-UT-ing, fill-UT-uh, instead of fee-LAID, fee-LAYS, fee-LAY-ing, fee-LAY-er, that have English suffixes tacked onto a French root.

0

My understanding as a Brit, supported by the Chambers C20 dictionary, is that filet (pronounced -ey) and fillet (pronouncet -et) are two separate English words; both derived from the French word filet, but with different meanings. Filet relates to an undercut of beef (tenderloin) - as in filet mignon. Fillet is the 'strip/slice' meaning, so you could have a fillet of salmon, beef, leather, wood etc., but not a salmon filet.

Somewhere along the line, a fillet of fish or meat was understood to be without bones, hence part of the preparation of a fillet was to remove the bones and so in a culinary context 'filleting' became synonymous with removing bones.

In French, filet (derived from the latin 'filum' - a thread) can also mean a mesh - as in a tennis net. This meaning may come up in other English contexts such as embroidery.

Will there be a fillit, when a fillet is used to fill it, as in a 'fillit weld'?

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thinking through your question,

(0) firstly note that you're completely wrong about the pronunciation. many pronounce the "engineering" sense both ways, and many pronounce the "meat" sense both ways.

quite simply, there are any number of engineer-chefs who pronounce both in mode A (identically), are any number of engineer-chefs who pronounce both in mode B (identically), are any number of engineer-chefs who pronounce them A/B, and any number of engineer-chefs who pronounce them B/A.

(1) secondly it's worth noting that most word-thinkers would, very simply, assert it is the same word. (filet - "strip of".)

it's no more exciting than if I said "chunk of meat" versus "chunk of leather". or for that matter "piece of meat" versus "piece of leather" or "strip of meat" versus "strip of leather".

Again, it's just the same word - it's that simple. (fillet - strip .. origin 'thread' in frog. utterly un-mysterious.)

Note that the fact that some words are pronounced variously is .. totally commonplace.

(2) If I'm not mistaken you are fundamentally asking "Hey - are there are two words, which have absolutely different origins, which in fact are pretty similar sounding or identical??" I really don't know, I imagine the answer would be "yes". It's a good, fun and interesting question, and I can't think of any. (Note that "fillet" has utterly no relationship, at all, to this question. It's just one word which means "strip".)

(3) I agree with you completely that's it is an interesting observation, that, there is becoming something of a tendency for a given particular person, to pronounce "filet" in two different ways!

I think even most people who consistently say "fill-ett" in all situations, would say "fillay" when they are saying filet mignon .. again, even if they are in the camp of saying "fill-et" when talking about a strip of chicken, cheese, leather, whatever ...

Again, there are some people who do this ("pronounce one word two ways"),

I probably do it with words I can't think of just now,

and you make a fascinating observation.

Perhaps, in the case of fillet, the word is about to split in to two words over the next few hundred years?

(And that's sort of the opposite of your thought-question right .. you were wondering if it came from, if it is currently, two different-origin words?)

You've now got me thinking of words which...

(a) have two (or more) common pronunciations {this is usually due to English speakers being both incredibly pretentious about yet staggeringly ignorant about the pronunciation of unimportant foreign words, or, due to the vast variations in the various world forms of Engligh}

and yet,

(b) where a given single person, will, on different occasions or for different uses, pronounce the word the two different ways

I can't think of any yet, perhaps someone can!


Ian has given an outstanding example of this phenomenon, route.

  • footnote, it's just come to my attention that the flllet in fillet mignon is pronounced both of the two ways, by various regional English speakers. (for some reason I assumed "fillay" was universal there -- sorry if it makes the example confusing.) Now my lingerie is twisted. – Fattie Mar 5 '15 at 5:08
  • just re: the spelling. it seems to me L and LL are both equally common. perhaps someone could confirm this using the amazing google n-whatever thingy? – Fattie Mar 5 '15 at 5:09
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    You cannot spell filet mignon with anything but a single L. Ever. – tchrist Mar 5 '15 at 6:08
  • The original word I was thinking of (which I didn't mention because it turns out that it's two words, not two pronunciations) is homogeneous. I was curious about how in non-technical contexts it seems to be pronounced as homogenous. And while homogenous is a different word from homogeneous, apparently they used to have different meanings, but now homogenous is considered to be a synonym of homogeneous because in modern usage it is almost always used that way. – Bret Wood Mar 5 '15 at 6:28
  • When I talk about chemistry, I say "homogeneous." (Because I also use the word "heterogeneous") On the other hand, in general conversation, I use the word "homogenous." Not quite an example of your point (b), but close. Especially because, until today I thought they were variant pronunciations of a single word, not two different words. – Bret Wood Mar 5 '15 at 6:37
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If Merriam-Webster calls fillet (fill-it) and fillet (fill-ay) heteronyms, then they're heteronyms and so two different words. I wouldn't have thought so because of them sharing the same etymology, identically meaning a thin strip of animal flesh, and the fact that fillet (fill-ay) can alternatively be pronounced (fill-it), but if the people who write the big, fat dictionary distinguish them as separate, then separate they be. It does no good to argue with the Webster clan—just ask the devil if you don't believe me.

Other heteronyms, words that are spelled the same as each other but are distinct from one another with different meanings and pronunciations include: wind (noun-blowing air) and wind (verb-what you do to a watch), minute (noun-a unit of time) and minute (adjective-very small), and Polish (adjective-of or related to Poland) and polish (verb/noun-shine). There are plenty of others as well. English is replete with such words.

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Filet is only used for filet mignon. Because of its common usage, Americans have applied the filet spelling to all cuts of meat. Fillet is correct and is also used by the AP Style Guide. As far as pronunciation, Americans use the French silent T (for both), and Brits use the pronounced T.

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    According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, Americans pronounce the T in fillet except when it is edible. – Peter Shor Mar 17 '15 at 19:16
  • @PeterShor - What makes a T edible? – Hot Licks Nov 21 '15 at 2:58

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