I keep hearing everyone at my work (Native speakers) saying e-X-etera. They said my pronunciation of the word as e-T-cetera was incorrect. I got into a big argument, they thought I was mad.

Is there some unknown rule as to why "etcetera" should be pronounces as "exetera"?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – MetaEd Jul 19 '18 at 17:46

The pronunciation of "et cetera" is an extremely common pet peeve, to the extent that there is a lot written about it on the Internet already. E.g.

It's one of the particular words that people tend to give as examples of "mispronunciations" that drive them nuts, or that kind of thing, along with the supposedly common "mispronunciations" of words like specific, supposedly and library. I find it a bit odd that you hadn't run into any information about this before posting your question here on this site.

You can always check a dictionary to see what it gives for the pronunciation of a word. That seems more productive than getting into a "big argument" with people who probably don't know as much as dictionary makers. For example, Merriam-Webster gives your preferred pronunciation first: "\ et-ˈse-tə-rə , -ˈse-trə also it- , nonstandard ek- , nonstandard ik- \". (But there's no way to force your coworkers to take that seriously if they are attached to their accustomed pronunciation.)

So, there is no rule saying that et cetera "should" be pronounced as "exetera". It's perfectly fine to pronounce it with /ts/ as you have been doing. The reasons for pronunciation variants are often unclear, but I've seen it suggested that the pronunciation with /k/ arose because of the influence of words starting with the common prefix ex-, which is pronounced with /ks/. There are also supposed to be pronunciation variants of escape and especially that have /ks/, and of course /ks/ is extremely common in espresso (although still stigmatized by many people).

There is no simple definition of "correct" pronunciation, so if you want to ask if a pronunciation is "correct", you have to specify what criteria you are using. (Or rather than asking about correctness, you could ask about something else that is less arguable.) There are many pronunciations that are commonly accepted, but that don't correspond to etymology or spelling; e.g. fuchsia is pronounced as /ˈfjuːʃə/ "few-sha" despite coming from the German name Fuchs [fʊks] (more or less "fooks") and being spelled (in standard written English) with "chs", which as far as I know does not correspond to the sound /ʃ/ in any other English word. Rationale is pronounced /ræʃəˈnæl/ or /ɹæʃəˈnɑːl/, despite coming from the Latin word rationale, where the e is pronounced and not silent (compare and contrast with the pronunciation of simile). Colonel is infamously pronounced kernel.

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    Actually, there are simple definitions of what correct pronunciation is, but they're so undemocratic and arbitrary most people shy away from them. – KarlG Jul 18 '18 at 13:37
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    @KarlG: Yes, I guess what I meant was that there are no definitions that are simultaneously simple and adequate. – herisson Jul 18 '18 at 13:40
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    Fuchsia probably got its pronunciation because “fooks-ya” sounds too much like another English word that starts with F. Just imagine a conversation about the color fooks-ya between a Victorian lady and her Scottish gentleman caller. – Davislor Jul 18 '18 at 14:03
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    @Lambie I don't have any problem with the way sumelic used "pet peeve". "[...] is an extremely common pet peeve [for many people]". Makes perfect sense. – user428517 Jul 18 '18 at 15:43
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    @sumelic I am not a phonologist but just realized the reason for etcetera being pronounced as ex-cetera. The grouping of sounds: et+ cet, soft c is not a natural phonemic grouping in English. Whereas, dropping the t and making it ex-cetera would be. – Lambie Jul 18 '18 at 16:54

Pronunciations vary according to the local dialect, as well from person to person.

There are many examples of variants according to local dialect, even within the same country. It's not reasonable to label any one of them as "incorrect", especially considering the etymological basis of the words.

In your example, et cetera is pronounced /et ˈkeː.te.ra/ in Classical Latin (according to linguistic reconstruction) and /et ˈt͡ʃe.te.ra/ in Ecclesiastical Latin . Neither of these match any of the modern pronunciations used in English.

In fact, a linguistic survey of the United States performed by Harvard University covered this exact word.

In this map, it can be seen that the "e[ts]etera" pronunciation (labelled red) actually comprises a majority (65%) of the speakers surveyed. Other common pronunciations include "e[ts]etra" (12%, blue), "eksetera" (15%, green) and "eksetra" (6%, purple).

enter image description here

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  • Really, no check for [ɨʔˈsɛt͡ʃɻə]? :) – tchrist Jul 18 '18 at 13:39
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    @sumelic I meant that (at least to me) the \t͡ʃ\ sounds closer to \ks\ and could be an explanation of where the "x" sound came from by shortening. I've modified the answer to remove the problematic section. – March Ho Jul 18 '18 at 13:51
  • It may be worth softening the claim on the Latin pronunciation; as I understand things, linguists are pretty sure that’s how those were pronounced, but they cannot vanquish all reasonable doubt about it. (Then again, you could be using “Classical Latin” and “Ecclesiastical Latin” to refer to the modern pronunciation styles that are intended to mimic the pronunciation believed to have been used in the past.) – KRyan Jul 18 '18 at 14:29
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    @KRyan Yes, you're right that "Classical Latin" is indeed a reconstruction and not known with absolute certainty. My understanding of "Ecclesiastical Latin" is that it's a modern living language used by the Vatican, and therefore does have a reasonably certain pronunciation. I've edited the answer to reflect this. – March Ho Jul 18 '18 at 14:44
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    I like the answer except the title. Based on the information you provided, I do not see evidence that there are local or regional patterns. The red, blue, purple, and green maps appear to cover the US the same (although dot densities are notoriously hard to visually analyze with this many points). If you made the same map with random color assignment of the dots, I don't think a person could tell the difference from the one provided by the study. I think a better title would be that it varies by individual. – Underminer Jul 18 '18 at 20:38

Both are technically correct in modern usage. The form you prefer is technically the phonetically correct English pronunciation of the original Latin term (et cetera). The other form is in sufficiently common usage to be also considered 'correct' by linguistic standards. Personally, here in the American midwest, I hear the first one more often among academics (and language snobs), and the second more often in other contexts.

You can find all kinds of words like this though which have multiple pronunciations which people argue over. Other examples include:

  • Tomato. Some people pronounce it with a long 'a', others with a short 'a'. 'Potato' has a similar dual.pronunciation.
  • Theatre. Some people treat the 'ea' as a single vowel sound, others split it to two long vowels (and of course there's the 'er' versus 're' argument, which is mostly an American versus Brittish thing).
  • Nuclear. Pronounced either phonetically correctly, or as 'nukyular'.
  • Caramel. Pronounced either phonetically correctly, or as 'carmel'.
  • Asterisk. Pronounced either phonetically correctly, or as 'asteriks'.
  • Orangutan. Pronounced either phonetically correctly, or with an extra terminal 'g' sound. This one is particularly interesting because the phonetic pronunciation is linguistically correct too (it's a loanword from Malay, and adding the 'g' sound at the end changes the meaning in Malay), but the other form is the dominant one in many places here in the US because of a strong tendency of English speakers using certain dialects to change a final 'n' sound following a vowel to an 'ng' sound with loanwords from some languages (which is ironic, because the reverse is the common case for many English words).

In most cases, one form or the other will dominate in a given dialect.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – MetaEd Jul 19 '18 at 17:42

As much as we might wish to fight against this kind of pronunciation shift, nonetheless it is a common linguistic phenomenon called metathesis.

For example, I'm sure that many people might object to the similar mis-pronunciation "ax" for the word "ask". However, as explained here, "ask" is itself a metathesis of an earlier pronunciation "ax"!!

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  • Yes, there is also consonant deletion. etc[etera] is not anywhere else..... – Lambie Jul 18 '18 at 18:59
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    I don't think this is exactly metathesis. That's when sounds get switched around: "ask" and "aks" both have /k/ and /s/, just in different orders. But "e/t/ cetera" doesn't have any /k/ sound. – herisson Jul 18 '18 at 19:08

The original Latin comes from the phrase "et cetera", meaning "and (et) the rest (cetera)". Latin made no distinction based on the hard "c" and "k", so in its original Latin, the pronunciation was "et ketera". Modernizing Latin and its development through Italian and other Romance languages introduced a soft "c" sound, which sounds like an "s".

So, the original pronunciation is "et ketera", the modern pronunciation is "et setera" and in no place does an "X" sounds come into play.

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    Except, clearly, an x sound does come into play from somewhere, since millions of English speakers use it. Pretending they don’t makes this a poor answer. Also, see my comment on March Ho’s answer about Latin pronunciation. – KRyan Jul 18 '18 at 14:33
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    The abbreviation etc is often misspelled as ect. I wonder whether that is the origin of the mispronunciation? – Kate Bunting Jul 18 '18 at 15:17
  • In Italian there is no “s”, the pronunciation is like “tch”; while French kept “et cetera” separated, whence the “s” sound, in Italian the “t” was assimilated to the “c” (that's never pronounced “s”). – egreg Jul 25 '18 at 19:38

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