One Word: Turmeric

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The word “turmeric” fascinates me.

So, for that matter, does the actual spice — as distinct from the word. Here’s the scoop:

One Word: Turmeric

Turmeric powder ranges in color from bright yellow to deep orange. It has a pungent, gingery-peppery flavor and is a main component of curry. Because of its color, it’s sometimes called “Indian saffron”. (Real saffron tastes completely different and is the most expensive of all spices. Turmeric is relatively cheap!)

I’ve been more and more adding turmeric to home-cooked dishes. Anything involving rice, lentils, seafood, pasta, poultry, and the like will benefit. Plus, they say it’s really, really good for you.

Turmeric contains curcumin, which allegedly fights cancer and lots of other bad stuff. It has antioxidants, trace minerals, and nano-thingamabobbles that run around and scrub your brain cells and blood vessels. Or something like that!

The tRouble with Turmeric

But what really gets me is that first “r” in there. In the word, I mean: There aren’t any alphabetical characters in the actual spice! (At least I hope not!)

The word is spelled “TURmeric”, with an “r” in the first syllable. But that “r” is silent! The word is almost always pronounced TOOmeric or TYOOmeric, as if the “r” were absent.

That’s the part that gets my goat: How can you have a silent “r”? To me, that simply doesn’t make sense or feel right. So for years I had been spelling it TUmeric (without the “r”).

When Cheri called this mistake to my attention, I assured her (way too smugly) that I was correct. You cannot (I said) have a silent “r” at that point in any word.

But I looked it up, expecting vindication — and danged if Cheri wasn’t right: Tʜᴇʀᴇ ɪs ᴀɴ “ʀ”! Most people don’t pronounce it, and no dictionary to my knowledge requires that it be pronounced. But it’s there.

Turns out there’s a language principle involved. It’s something called “dissimilation”. Not to be confused with the similarly spelled “dissimulation”!

Dissimilation occurs when there are two identical or similar sounds in a word. Over time, these tend to become dissimilar — that is, people start pronouncing them differently. No one is sure why, and perhaps it’s technically “wrong”. But it happens. In fact, it happens in just about every language. It’s one of the ways languages evolve.

A related example is the first “r” in February, which nearly all of us ignore. (I say FebYOOary. Do you?) Or the first “d” in Wednesday, which we pronounce WINSday. (I’ve never heard anyone say WEDness-day.)

These and countless other examples still jangle me. I first learned to read and spell phonetically — and darn it, I want language to ʙᴇ phonetic! Usually, it is. But not always. (Sigh!)

Still, it’s a good day whenever I learn, all in the same day:

✦ a new word (in this case, dissimilation);
✦ the correct spelling of an old and familiar word (turmeric);
✦ don’t think too much about it — just enjoy language; and
✦ Cheri is usually right!

(This article is part of my series on words that are #worth1000pictures.)


One Word: Turmeric — 9 Comments

    • Thanks for these sources, Dev. If I understand what I’m reading there, the UK pronunciation definitely drops the “r”, but in the US the word can be pronounced either way (according, anyway, to Wiktionary). That said, I’ve never once, here in the US, heard the term pronounced with the “r”! So when I wrote that it’s “almost always” pronounced with no “r”, I was referring to my personal experience and that of various other Americans I’ve randomly asked.

      Maybe it’s a regional thing: There may be parts of the US where it’s different.

      That said, by “almost always” I didn’t mean never. I was aware that some dictionaries allow the first “r” in the spoken word. My point was about the spelling: So far as I can tell, there’s a wide measure of agreement that the first “r” is required in the written word, even if not in the spoken.

      • I’m British and have always pronounced the r, and actually in my experience that seems to be the slightly more common pronunciation here (although in some accents the r is there but less obvious). I ended up on this page after hearing someone pronounce it without the r again and it got me wondering why so many people pronounce it “incorrectly”!

        The links provided above by Dev seem pretty clear to me that TuRmeric is the main pronunciation in both UK & US english, and tUmeric is the nonstandard (but common) version.

        • You’re quite correct, Saskia! In my earlier reply above, I scanned the links provided by Dev a bit too quickly. As you say, they do show “tur” as the standard, and more common, pronunciation, with “tu” (and a silent “r”) as secondary and non-standard.

          Research on these nuances is complicated — for me, at least — by the fact that Wiktionary and many other resources nowadays use the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) to show pronunciation. This is a complex tool that I haven’t entirely conquered. It uses symbols that don’t always come naturally to an “old-school” native-English speaker. There also are audio clips purporting to demonstrate the right sound. But these typically require Adobe Flash, which — for security reasons — I don’t have installed in my web browser.

          As noted above, I prefer that spellings and pronunciations be as phonetic as possible. Thus I’m happy that the “r” is not only pronounceable, but preferable. That said, it remains true that I’ve personally never heard anyone pronounce that first “r”!

          The word “purporting” (which I just used above) also has two instances of “r” — the first one placed just as in “turmeric”. (I just noticed this.) According to the “dissimilation” principle, we should be dropping that first “r” in “purport” any day now, and saying it as “puport”. But so far I hear no sign of this happening. Stay tuned!

  1. I used to think, mom added turmeric in food just for the color (it tastes strange otherwise).

    It can be added in warm milk, either for a good night’s sleep or for joint pain.

    I pronounce turmeric with ‘r’; always have. I have also heard quite a lot of people saying Wednesday with ‘d’; sometimes even I do.

    Now that you have bought it to my attention I think it’d be fun to spend weekend asking everyone around ‘spell turmeric/Wednesday’ and see what they say.

    • Turmeric does make food a pretty color, Priya Sharma. I have heard it can help with joint pain, but didn’t know about its role as a sleep aid. That’s something I must try!

      I had thought that the first “r” was almost never pronounced. You and Dev Samaddar, however, have educated me. Obviously that pronunciation varies by geography!

      It’s a relief to learn there are people who do pronounce the “d” in “Wednesday”. My impression is that Wednesday originally was named after the Norse god Odin, called “Woden” in the Germanic tradition. Apparently that’s how the “W” migrated into English. The “d” however became silent over time. Except when it isn’t, as you point out.

      Obviously I need to be even more cautious about generalizing than I already am!

  2. I’ll just keep saying “turmeric” with the “r”. I don’t like to think of tumors when I think of a spice I love.

  3. Hey, I’m from way down south and we all pronounce the name of the spice “turmeric.” My grandmother and her sisters, born in the 1800s, my mother, aunts, even all the males in our family who cooked or cook, all pronounced or pronounce it “turmeric.” When I hear people on a television cooking show pronouncing it “tumeric,” I’m embarrassed for them. The third and sixth “r” in the word are both sounded. Do you pronounce “tartar” “tatar?” “Turmeric” is correct:).

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