Wednesday, 26 February 2014

10:34 – As I was making up chemicals yesterday, I thought again about how different chemists pronounce chemical names differently. The first time I remember this happening was my freshman year of college. I used the chemical name strontium and my roommates, also chemistry majors, started making fun of me. I’d pronounced it strawn-chum, whereas they thought it should be pronounced strawn-tee-um. They pointed out that I pronounced calcium cal-see-um. I pointed out that “ti” was not “ci”, that they did not pronounce action ak-tee-on, and that anyway a foolish consistency was the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.

A standards body called IUPAC defines official chemistry nomenclature, but the pronunciation of these standard names differs from chemist to chemist. For example, I was making up three liters of dilute acetic acid yesterday. Probably 99% of the chemists I’ve known pronounce that uh-SEE-tik, but I have known more than a few that use different pronunciations, including uh-SETT-ik, ay-SEE-tik, ay-SETT-ik, and probably others. Same deal on many other chemicals, such as phenol. I pronounce that FENN-all, but I’ve heard other pronounce it FENN-ole, FEEN-all, FEEN-ole, feen-OLE, fenn-ALL, and so on.

And when a chemical becomes a functional group name, all bets are off. For example, of the 99% of chemists I know who use uh-SEE-tik, all or nearly all pronounce acetylene as uh-SETT-uh-leen. I don’t believe I’ve ever heard it pronounced uh-SEE-tuh-leen. For that matter, one seldom hears acetate pronounced other than ASS-uh-tate. But I’ve heard acetyl (as in acetylsalicylic acid) pronounced uh-SEE-tul, uh-SETT-tul, and even ASS-uh-TEEL.

The interesting thing is that, as long as there’s no ambiguity, no one seems to care. Everyone just keeps pronouncing chemical names as they wish. No one ever thinks, “Wow. I’ve been mispronouncing that name all these years.”

11:00 – Oh, yeah. I should have mentioned that all bets are off with the Brits, too. One of my favorites is their spelling and pronunciation of aluminum/aluminium. Americans use aluminum and pronounce it al-OOM-ih-num. Brits use aluminium and pronounce it al-you-MINN-ee-um. What’s really odd is that the first spelling and pronuciation was originally British and the second was originally American. They decided they liked ours better about the same time that we decided we liked theirs better.

Of course, with the Brits it’s not limited to chemical pronunciations. Sometimes I think they pronounce words differently just to annoy us. We noticed this frequently while we watching The Borgias recently. Americans pronounce contribute cun-TRIB-byute. Brits apparently pronounce it CON-truh-byute, I think just to be annoying. But my personal favorite is urinal (American YOUR-in-nal), which the Brits apparently pronounce yur-INE-al.

Speaking of annoying, how is that Firefox, currently in something like version 27.0, still uses a British English dictionary rather than a US English dictionary? I mean, US English became Standard English a long time ago. British English is now a dialect.