Like other words that start with "arch-", archenemy is partly derived from arkhi or arkhos from the Greek (Wikipedia), meaning chief. But why is it said differently, using a "ch" sound, from archipelago and archaeology, which use a "k" sound?

The "ch" in archenemy is pronounced similar to that in archbishop and archdiocese, even though they're followed by consonants in the latter, but a vowel the former.

What made it break from the rules?

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    Different borrowings at different times by different people with different ideas about how to pronounce things in other languages. There are no "the rules" that anybody follows, and nobody ever thinks they're diverging; they're always correct. It's other people who're wrong. Commented May 27, 2015 at 1:50
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    When there are rules, yes. But (a) often there is simply variation; (b) many people are misinformed about what rules there are; (c) language rules are self-enforcing, like the law of gravity, not statutes that have to be obeyed. Commented May 27, 2015 at 3:20
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    archipelago has been borrowed from Italian Arcipelago, Archenemy has been created around 1500 , archeology in the 1800. The way of pronouncing neologism or borrowed words varies with time and origin of the word.
    – P. O.
    Commented May 28, 2015 at 18:14
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    Other than the quip about gravity, I agree with @JohnLawler, language rules--especially pronunciation rules--are a product of the people who speak the language. For example, look at the debate about whether to use who or whom. That being said, I have often pronounced all the example words with the "ch" as having a "k" sound.
    – franklin
    Commented May 30, 2015 at 16:02
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    @MondoMigs In language, there certainly are rules, but there are so many exceptions. And yes this site is all about helping explicate those rules and exceptions. It's just that English orthography is... a mess, and not exactly language either. It is a hodgepodge of rules followed unconsciously, rules made up by individuals (eg Webster), and arbitrarily random (maybe a pleonasm, maybe not) choices (eg 'isle'), which for loans can be chaotic (eg Ghadafi). English isn't special; for Irish you need to write out 10 letters before you can have one syllable and you still don't know which one.
    – Mitch
    Commented Jun 1, 2015 at 20:36

2 Answers 2


I am not a native speaker, but I see a major difference between arch- in archenemy or in archaeology and even another one to archipelago, which would explain the different pronunciations.

In the first case it is used as a prefix. Enemy is still a word by itself, as bishop or diocese are. The arch- prefix is used to emphasize the relevance / importance / significance of this special enemy / diocese / bishop. Here arch- derives from the Greek archi- or arkhi- (main, chief) as you mentioned before.

This is also correct for archipelago (archi meaning main), but here it is a word that can only be used as a whole. Pelago has no meaning in English. Archipelago derives from Italian (where it comes from Greek), so one cannot compare it with archbishop etc. It has not been combined from already English words.

In archaeology arch- is no prefix. Instead archaeo- could be counted as one. The word derives from the Greek words archaios (old, archaic) and logos (science).

The difference becomes clearly visible when translating to German:

Archbishop - Erzbischof

Archenemy - Erzfeind

Archdiocese - Erzdiözese

Archipelago - Archipel

Archaeology - Archäologie

As a prefix to the given words Erz- has the same meaning as arch- and like archipelago the German word Archipel derives from the Italian word. Archaeology and Archäologie are just the same.

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    It would be good if this answer also corrected, rather than perpetuated, the false impression that the prefix in "archenemy" and "archeology" come from the same Greek root. They do not. Greek "archaios" = "ancient", "archo" = "lead". Ultimately they probably come from the same root, but as loanwords into other languages they seem quite distinct in meaning and usage.
    – ziggurism
    Commented Jul 8, 2018 at 15:51
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    you did not address the word "archangel" which is mentioned in the question title and has the same prefix as "archbishop" yet pronounced differently. Commented Sep 24, 2018 at 1:16
  • @ziggurism I did mention the Greek roots in my answer.
    – Daniel
    Commented Oct 18, 2018 at 10:11
  • @billynoah I did not mention it, because I would have pronounced it false myself, since this had to be derived from the same 'arch'. Now I looked it up and I have no explanation apart from it is an inconsistency in the English language. Maybe it was mistaken as an angel of old instead of main.
    – Daniel
    Commented Oct 18, 2018 at 10:15
  • @Daniel you’re right; it does. I must have missed it
    – ziggurism
    Commented Oct 18, 2018 at 15:33

Further to John Lawler's comment to the OP: Here is one factor which could explain how come the "arch-" prefixes of archenemy and archangel are pronounced differently. Archangel is derived from the Greek archangelos, that is, the compounding was done in Greek. By contrast, archenemy was formed in English by combining the English prefix arch- and the word enemy. True, that prefix was derived from Greek, but its pronunciation has been Anglicised. The same applies to Daniel's examples archbishop and archdiocese, and also to archdeacon, archduke and archlute.

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