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I'm a native speaker, and I would naturally read the word VAY-guh-ri.

I've never actually heard anyone say the word, I only ever see it in writing.

But I also know that you can pronounce it vuh-GARE-i. Does anyone actually pronounce it like this? Where does this weird pronunciation come from?

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    I've never heard the latter either. The Wiktionary article agrees with "formerly /ˌvəˈɡɛɹi/, now commonly /ˈveɪˌɡəɹi/". – user4727 Jul 5 '11 at 8:30
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    The Oxford English Dictionary gives /ˈveɪˌɡəɹi/ first, /ˌvəˈɡɛɹi/ second (never heard /ˌvəˈɡɛɹi/ myself). – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Jul 5 '11 at 8:42
  • I've never heard this pronounced vuh-GARE-i - so as far as I'm concerned this pronunciation came from you! – Bill Jul 5 '11 at 8:50
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    W.S.Gilbert's "Iolanthe" (1882) requires the second: "A plague on this vagary / I'm in a nice quandary / .. " going on to rhyme it with "chary", "fairy", "library" and "seminary". Of course, some of the other rhyming words need unconventional pronunciations too. – Colin Fine Jul 5 '11 at 13:45
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    Word power made easy by Norman Lewis says the word is va-GARE-ee and I was pleasantly surprised, but this is a pretty old book where secretive is se-KREE-tive, so I'm not so sure – user111494 Feb 23 '15 at 12:04
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It used to be pronounced vuh-GARE-i, but it's changed. As @Tim above stated:

(GenAm) IPA: formerly /ˌvəˈɡɛɹi/, now commonly /ˈveɪˌɡəɹi/

It's usually pronounced VAY -guh-ri, but there are still people who pronounce it the "other way", as can be seen here

1

In Gilbert and Sullivan's Iolanthe (1882) the old pronunciation definitely held:

We are dainty little fairies
Ever singing, ever dancing;
We indulge in our vagaries
In a fashion most entrancing.

I have to admit that since 1882 lyricists seem generally to have fought shy of using vagaries in their rhyme-schemes, so as a way of dating pronunciation-change, it's a bit lacking.

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"Vagary" is one of a number of words from Latin or Romance languages that had a long, stressed vowel in the second-to-last syllable in the source language, but that can be pronounced in present-day English with the stress shifted to the third-to-last syllable.

The Oxford English Dictionary says "probably < Latin vagārī (Italian vagare) to wander". (Italian "vagare" is pronounced [vaˈgaːre].)

Other words like vagary that used to be pronounced with stress on the second syllable (some still can be) are balcony (< Italian balcone [balˈkoːne]), abdomen (< Latin abdōmen) and acumen (< Latin acūmen).

While the etymology somewhat explains the existence of the variant with stress on the second-to-last syllable, there are also words with somewhat similar etymology where as far as I know the stress has been on the third-to-last syllable for much longer, such as plethora (< Greek πληθώρα, its derivative Latin plethora, and its derivative French pléthore; the OED says "In 18th-cent. dictionaries the word is occasionally recorded with stress on the second syllable (Bailey (1731, 1735)), apparently following the ancient Greek stress") and retina (< Latin retina, with the suffix -ina that had a long "ī" in Classical Latin).

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