The English language is a funny thing. Even when people are technically speaking the same language, ask five people how to say pecan or mayonnaise or grocery and you’ll get five (or more) different answers. Lately, the debate over how to pronounce caramel has heated up again, so let’s take a look at the origins of this sticky word and its pronunciation.
Twitter, being the arbiter of all things cultural these days, kicked off the month with a question from a user on how to pronounce caramel that quickly turned into a deep discussion. The ratio seems to be heavily in favor of a two-syllable word, without that pesky “a” in the middle.
But it’s not as simple an explanation as that either. In addition to the “a” or “no-a” debate, there are different pronunciations for both the first syllable (“car” versus “care”) and the last syllable (“mel” versus “muhl”).
Basically, how to pronounce caramel is all over the place. It can also be situational. Several Twitter users pointed out that it depended on how they were using the word caramel.
I have a theory: it’s “care-a-mel” when it’s a liquid (it sounds flowy) and “car-mull” when it’s a solid (that sounds more sturdy)
— Zac Watkins (@saywhatkins) July 3, 2018
Everyone knows it’s
– “cara-mel” if it’s a sauce and
– “car-mull” if it’s a solid treat.
— Hcc (@ClatisC) July 1, 2018
(By the way, imagine how this debate must feel for Carmel, California?)
If you’re looking for vindication from the dictionary, you’re likely to find it, whatever your pronunciation. The Oxford Dictionaries states:
“The word caramel can acceptably be pronounced in several accepted ways, including KARR-uh-mel, KARR-uh-muhl, and, in North American English, KAR-muhl. The disappearance of that second syllable -uh- in the final pronunciation seems to have been in the works for a long time.”
Over at Merriam-Webster, you can listen to the word’s pronunciation, and for caramel, they use both the “car” and “care” versions, the first without the “a” it sounds like, and the second, clearly with it.
How did we get to all these different pronunciations? Well, for starters the English version of the word, like so many other English words, has a path that goes from Latin (“cannamellis,” where canna means “cane” and mel/mellis means “honey”) to 18th century Spanish or Portuguese (“caramelo”) to French, which is where we see “caramel” used for the first time.
English uses the French word, with a slightly different spin on the sound depending on which side of the Atlantic you’re on. The British English pronunciation tends to be more “care,” while the American pronunciation tends to “car.” Within the United States, whether you say “mel” or “muhl” most likely depends on where you’re from.
Basically, what it boils down to is that however you pronounce the word caramel, you’re right. And now we can move on to “pecan,” which we all know has only one unequivocally correct pronunciation.