I've never heard "heinous" pronounced "HI-ness" before; I always thought the only valid pronunciation was "HAY-ness."

Is "HI-ness" a valid pronunciation of "heinous" in any English-speaking country? The speaker in this case is a Canadian: Professor Jordan Peterson.

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I'm British and, at least in the UK, I only recall ever hearing "HAY-ness," although that video says an alternative British pronunciation is "HE-nus." Either way, it's still not "HI-ness"!

Cambridge Dictionary also indicates the same pronunciation for both British and American English.

I even found an interview with the lead singer of an American blues band called the "Heinous Hounds." Both the band member and the interviewer (both American) also pronounce it the same way.

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This question was not intended to be a peeve or a criticism of Professor Peterson in any way; I have the utmost respect for the man! It's actually precisely because I know Peterson to be an intelligent and articulate speaker that I was intrigued to hear him make what sounded like a possible pronunciation error.

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    This is how the guttersnipes in my fair lady would say it.
    – Kris
    Commented Dec 2, 2019 at 2:20
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    Besides, even if this was a peeve, and it's not, that wouldn't automatically make the question off topic regardless of whether or not it was actually off topic. The two things aren't mutually exclusive. Please don't presume to know why someone is asking a question. Commented Dec 2, 2019 at 14:57
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    Heinous is such a good example of "booklish" or "onlyreaditism"... ask.metafilter.com/266681/… Commented Dec 2, 2019 at 21:03
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    Professor Jordan Peterson should take a lesson from Bill and Ted. Despite lacking intellectual prowess, they could at least pronounce "heinous" correctly. 🤣
    – Mentalist
    Commented Dec 2, 2019 at 22:15
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    When I was in the Navy I served with a guy who was taking a course on How To Sound Smarter. He got a list of words every other week or so, with definitions but no pronunciation guidance, which he was supposed to memorize and use. It was interesting when he used his new words - but I'm afraid the course failed in its primary objective. :-} Commented Dec 3, 2019 at 12:51

2 Answers 2


For heinous say: /ˈheɪ.nəs/ like greyness
               — ɴᴏᴛ /ˈhaɪ.nəs/ like dryness
               — ɴᴏʀ /ˈhiː.ni.əs/ like Phineas

The Canadian speaker in the first clip is using the phoneme we refer to as the PRICE vowel. This phoneme is by convention normatively written as the diphthong /aɪ/ in both Received Pronunciation and General American, but the exact phonetics for that phoneme vary by dialect and speaker. He appears to saying [ɐi] there. This is a non-standard pronunciation of heinous according to the OED. He should not be using the PRICE vowel there.

In contrast, both the American and the Australian in the second clip are each using the phoneme which we call the FACE vowel. This phoneme is by convention normatively written as the diphthong /eɪ/ in both Received Pronunciation and General American, but as with all phonemes, the exact phonetics for that phoneme vary by dialect and speaker. The American appears to saying [eɪ] there, and the Australian perhaps [ɛɪ]. Those are two allophones of the same phoneme, so exactly which gets used phonetically will not change which word one hears said. This is a perfectly standard pronunciation of heinous according to the OED because it uses the FACE vowel.

In other words, heinous should rhyme with greyness and anus, ɴᴏᴛ with dryness and sinus.

Quoth the OED

The OED gives a primary pronunciation for heinous in both the UK and the US alike with the first syllable pronounced like hay as in hayfields, the so-called FACE vowel. However, it also gives an alternate, secondary UK pronunciation whose first syllable is like hee as in tee hee, which is the FLEECE vowel. The OED presents no evidence that heinous is ever pronounced with a first syllable like high as in high school, which is the PRICE vowel.

Historical spellings dating from Middle English include both heynous and hainous. Its etymon, however, is French haineux, in Old French haïnos, haïneus, from haine hatred, from ha-ïr meaning to hate. So the “high” pronunciation was historically there in Old French and perhaps in Middle English, but never that I can see in modern versions of either language.

Other References

I have heard native speakers of English from the Appalachia region of the United States use the "highness" pronunciation, and like the OP found this peculiar. I have yet to uncover any documentation in support of this variation.

However, others have noticed this and called it wrong. For example, there’s a blog post by V. J. Singal from 2011 that calls this the mispronounced word of the week:

This past week, while speaking about the tragedy in Tucson, numerous Americans have used the word “heinous” [pronounced HAY-nus] to describe Jared Loughner’s crime. No surprise there. What has amazed me is the number of prominent and well-educated people who have mispronounced that word, including University of Arizona President Robert Shelton. In his opening remarks at the nationally broadcast memorial service on Wednesday night (the one attended by President Obama), Shelton pronounced heinous as “highness.” Unbelievable!

And in the PBS column “Beastly Mispronunciations”, they cite The Big Book Of Beastly Mispronunciations: The Complete Opinionated Guide For The Careful Speaker by Charles Harrington Elster, who offers this opinion:

Heinous HAY-nis.

This word is so frequently mispronounced by well-educated speakers (who ought to know better) that you’d think the dictionaries would have caved in by now and countenanced the blunder. To their credit, they have not. HAY-nis is the only acceptable pronunciation of this word. Do not say HEE-nis or HEE-nee-is (HEE- as in heat), both of which are HAY-nis and long-standing members of the Most Unwanted Beastly Mispronunciations Hit List. Heinous has two syllables, not three, and the first syllable is pronounced like the word hay, never like he. See mischievous, grievous, intravenous.

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    The French word haineux does not have a diphthong; if it did, it would be spelled haïneux, like the verb haïr, which does have a diphthong. (Although the French claim there are no diphthongs in French, just two vowels which happen to be next to each other.) Commented Dec 1, 2019 at 23:16
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    The pronunciation of the second syllable given by the "Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations" assumes that the reader has the weak vowel merger, that is to say, that the pronunciation of an unstressed short i and a schwa are identical. Commented Dec 2, 2019 at 21:22
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    Another possibility for the ‘high’ pronunciation might be analogy/confusion with German, which would pronounce the first syllable approximately that way. And BTW, as a southern-UK native, I'd usually pronounce the word to rhyme with, er, a part of the body…
    – gidds
    Commented Dec 2, 2019 at 23:37
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    This touches on what my first instinct was when I heard it, that it is a nonstandard pronunciation. It's interesting to know exactly why it's nonstandard. Very interesting. Thanks. Commented Dec 3, 2019 at 2:08
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    "I have heard native speakers of English ... use the "highness" pronunciation, ... I have yet to uncover any documentation in support of this variation" . . . . You have your "documentation". You heard native speakers use it. That's all you need. In English, dictionaries are descriptive. If they don't contain a pronunciation native speakers use, it is the dictionary which is wrong.
    – Ben
    Commented Dec 3, 2019 at 10:57

Kentucky Fried Movie

"Young lady, are you aware that to withhold evidence, pertinent to a crime, so heinious..."





"I think it's pronounced 'heenus'."

"No, you wouldn't say 'your heenus'."

"No! Ladies and gentlemen, I have it right here. 'Hyenas': Any of a family of cowardly, carnivorous beasts of Asia and Africa."

  • I've never heard of this movie before but I've just downloaded it! Here's a link to the courtroom scene you quoted: youtu.be/Pm1rif1fASk?t=369 "No. You wouldn't say 'your heenus'." 😂 Commented Dec 2, 2019 at 22:15
  • Please try to elaborate on your answer.
    – JJJ
    Commented Dec 9, 2019 at 8:10
  • Actually this answer, while amusing, doesn't answer the question. Which of the offered alternatives is the correct pronunciation?
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Dec 25, 2019 at 9:05

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