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http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/lichen says 'lichen' has two pronunciations: /ˈlʌɪk(ə)n/, /ˈlɪtʃ(ə)n/. In contrast, Oxford English Dictionary only registers the former. What is the history and distribution of these two pronunciations? (Which one do you use and where are you from?)

  • ˈlɪtʃ(ə)n - Toronto, ON, Canada – Ben Oct 13 '15 at 16:31
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    I can't enter IPA here but it's as near as makes no difference a homophone for "liken". I'm from Southern England and have rarely heard the other pronunciation. Not that it's a common word in speech. – Chris H Oct 13 '15 at 16:54
  • No IPA, but "laiken" Contrasts with liken, Washington, USA – Azor Ahai Oct 13 '15 at 19:42
  • @PressTilty: "Contrasts with liken"? That means it's pronounced differently. For me (midwestern US) lichen and liken are homophones, and contrast only in meaning and spelling. BTW, /ˈlʌɪk(ə)n/ is RP pronunciation; in the US, they'd both be /'layk(ə)n/. I've never encountered anyone saying /ˈlɪtʃ(ə)n/, which is clearly a spelling pronunciation, like /'bɛdræg(ə)ld/ or /bə'drɪd(ə)n/. – John Lawler Oct 13 '15 at 20:18
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    In defence of /ˈlɪtʃ(ə)n/ , see this article from The Spectator. – JHCL Oct 20 '15 at 12:21
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The /ˈlʌɪk(ə)n/ pronunciation is completely normal for how Latin words are pronounced in English. When an "i" is in a position where it would be pronounced as a long i in English, it often is: compare item, saliva, sinus, virus. And "ch" in Latin words (which is only found in originally-Greek words) is usually pronounced /k/ in English. Compare echo.

The /ˈlɪtʃ(ə)n/ pronunciation is probably a spelling pronunciation. Somebody reading lichen and never having heard it would be quite likely to pronounce it this way.

I can't find any data as to how these pronunciations are distributed geographically; one could look at the comments and see if there is any pattern. Living in the U.S. Northeast, I almost always hear /ˈlaɪk(ə)n/.

The OED has a note:

The pronunciation /ˈlɪtʃən/ is given in Smart without alternative, and most of the later Dicts. allow it a second place; but it is now rare in educated use.

  • I'm not trying to be funny here (and I'm not going to vote you down) but your explanation gives about as much evidence as mine. As I said I'm not going to vote this down as it simply demonstrates that the evidence for these things is scant to say the least. As a side note the origin of "Lichen" is the word "Leichein" so your determination of pronunciation from the "I" is incorrect as it would undoubtedly be influenced by the preceding "e". – user121341 Nov 3 '15 at 13:07
  • The Latin word (which is what educated people would probably have used) was lichen. The OED gives no indication of it ever having been spelled Leichein in English texts. – Peter Shor Nov 3 '15 at 13:26
  • The OED does not give a complete etymological history - in English English (as opposed to any other form of English) the Latin or Greek pronunciation is more likely to have driven the English spelling (complicated reasons that you would probably dismiss as far-fetched) rather than the English spelling dictating the pronunciation. But good luck with your hypothesis. – user121341 Nov 3 '15 at 13:33
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The word is in origin Greek, not in use in English before the 18th century, although Philemon Holland’s translation of Pliny, of 1601, rather charmingly mentions that there is ‘a certain skinny gum, in Greek called Lichen, which hath a wonderfull operation to cure the rhagadies or chaps’. But in Benjamin Smart’s Grammar of English Pronunciation (1810), the "kitchen" pronunciation is the only one given.

Later, there came an alternative pronunciation (Li-Ken) based on the misconception that it was of Latin origin - such as "lichen simplex" or "lichen planus" - which are skin diseases.

So while pronouncing it to rhyme with KITCHEN is correct - the battle seems lost with LIKEN in common use.

  • How do the second and third paragraphs of this answer follow from the first? The word originates from Greek. In words from Greek, it is usual to pronounce "ch" as the sound /k/, rather than as the "tch" sound found in the middle of "kitchen". And "i" in the second-to-last syllable of a word from Greek is often pronounced as "long i": compare icon and siphon. So the Greek origin does not add any support to the pronunciation that rhymes with "kitchen". – herisson Dec 26 '19 at 6:45
  • And while Benjamin Smart’s Grammar of English Pronunciation shows that the pronunciation rhyming with "kitchen" was used in 1810, it doesn't show that the other pronunciation is incorrect or based on a "misconception". – herisson Dec 26 '19 at 6:47

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