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

10 Answers 10


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

  • LOL fantastic lyric! – Fattie 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
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    @Kosmonaut: I think that depends on which vowels it's between, and how unstressed they are. Would you pronounce Soho without an 'h'? How about quahog? – Peter Shor Sep 4 '14 at 22:16
  • @PeterShor: You are right. This was too broad. It happens with unstressed front vowels (/e,i/ and their lax counterparts) and not the others. – Kosmonaut Sep 11 '14 at 13:44

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

Something to remember is

it's just like annihilate,

which has a pretty agreed pronunciation.

As a child, I thought nihilism was pronounced "nil-ism" (the "nil" makes sense in terms of the meaning of the word) as I had only read it and never heard it!


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~~".


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


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.


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.


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".


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.


Since the root "nihil" comes from the Latin, I pronounce the way the Catholic Church folks use(d) it. Many will remember the words "imprimatur" and "nihil obstat" in books like the Bible, et al. The first meant "let it be printed" and the second something like "nothing to be objected to." Anyway, the "nihil" was always pronounced nee-hill or maybe nih-hil, but not nye-hil. So I had heard the Latin-y pronunciation for years. That being said, I recall a Latin professor spending much time reminding us that no one knew for certain how Latin was pronounced, though clues might be inferred from Romance languages. He taught Cicero, but reminded us (often) that it could be Chee-cher-o, or even Kik-er-o. So, in brief, I'm staying with the nee-hilists and the nih-hilists.

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    Welcome to EL&U. I encourage you to review the help center; this is a Q&A site, not a discussion forum, and answers should be supported with explanations which include reputable references. But beyond that, the pronunciation of English words is not dependent on the pronunciation of their roots, whether you prefer "traditional" or "reformed academic" Latin pronunciation. – choster Sep 4 '14 at 19:54

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