British prime minister Rishi Sunak mentioned mayoral elections the other day and he pronounced them as though they were conducted by mouth in the month of May: May-oral. There is no doubt that this is an American pronunciation, though some Americans prefer MAY-uhr-uhl to may-OR-uhl. In British English it’s MAIR-uhl.
The funny pronunciation has spread to electoral, which on both sides of the Atlantic was uh-LECK-tuh-ruhl. Now broadcasters sometimes say uh-leck-TOR-ruhl. It is as if the word were somehow difficult to pronounce and might be easier if it was more like tutorial. Unless everyone pulls themselves together, which is unlikely, it will be impossible to resist the slide.
No one can tell such words’ pronunciation merely from their spelling. I have never bought an Oreo, a biscuit first produced in New York in 1912. I don’t like Bourbon biscuits in Britain and Oreos don’t look any better. But I’ve never known how to pronounce Oreo. Is the first syllable, I wondered, like that of horror, or that of oral? The OED tells me it is like oral. Nowadays, looking something up and finding another item of interest is called “going down a rabbit hole.” Since 1938 or earlier, that phrase had been used to mean “passage into a strange, surreal or nonsensical situation,” the reference being to Alice. It is still applicable to conspiracy theorists and was used this year as the title of a series by the BBC’s disinformation and social media correspondent Marianna Spring. But my rabbiting was more like a terrier rummaging happily in a warren. I came across Oriel, a name with an agreeably complicated origin. The Oxford college was named after a projecting window. In the fourteenth century, Oriel took over Seneschal Hall, which had such a window. The window’s name was from oriolum, “porch or antechamber, usually on an upper floor.” In the 1620s, a new tower with an oriel window built at Oriel College only confused the world more. Perhaps, after the fashion of Kellogg College, Oriel might mark a generous benefaction by adjusting its name to Oreo College.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s February 2024 World edition.