Whither Either?

Believe it or not, compatriots, in the good ol’ US of A the preferred pronunciation of the word either is EE-ther. And the same was true in Great Britain until the late nineteenth century. So where did the ubiquitous EYE-ther come from?

One explanation points a finger at Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, who brought the German pronunciation of -ei (eye) with him when he moved to London to marry Queen Victoria. Before long, members of the court were vying to see who could out-eye whom. Yet the vogue for EYE-ther wasn’t wholly embraced: In British films of the 1930s and ’40s (think Ealing and Pinewood studios), EE-ther occasionally came from the lips of Kensingtonians and East Enders alike.

EYE-ther’s rise in the United States dates to the late 1970s, according to William Safire On Language (1980). In his book, the explicatory enthusiast of etymology noted that “I. Willis Russell, dean of American word-watchers … cited the use of eye-ther by ABC Anchorman Max Robinson and on the soap opera As the World Turns.

If you’re doubtful, access the dictionary site OneLook.com, click the links to as many dictionaries as you choose, key in either, and then listen to the mini-megaphoned voices express “EE-ther” much more often than not. Anchormen and soaps notwithstanding, EYE-ther probably gained currency on this side of the Atlantic because we tend to think of British speech as more genteel. Makes you wanna shout “Bah humbug!”? Me too.

So why shouldn’t the legions of us who grew up pronouncing either as EE-ther stick with it? If you ask this quasi-traditionalist (and all those aforementioned dictionaries), it’s the American way.

3 Responses to Whither Either?

  • Dr. Phil says:

    I’ve been “eye-thered” to death by my sister-in-law for the last fifty years. Thank you for finally putting this issue to sleep, as with “ether!”

  • Erik Kowal says:

    Having grown up in southern England, I can tell you that in my neck of the woods the EYE-ther pronunciation was standard — I never thought twice about it.

    My take on the topic is that both pronunciations are extremely widespread, and that it is futile to make an issue over which is more ‘correct’ than the other. Your mention of ‘the ubiquitous EYE-thur’ implicitly concedes the point.

    • Fred says:

      Erik, I ratcheted my grumpy-old man persona up a couple of notches not to say one pronunciation is more “correct” than the other but rather to take up for those Americans who stick to “EE-ther.” Looks like I need to reshape the post somewhat to make that clear, so please keep your constructive criticism comin’!

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