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The not-so-great caramel debate

I’m intrigued by the not-so-great debate over the pronunciation of caramel, which is instructive both socially and linguistically. Is the word pronounced with that second a, as caramel or without it, as carmel?

People rarely object to the first pronunciation, but the second is often cause for a scolding. The pronunciation carAmel follows the spelling, we are told. Don’t you see the a in the middle? Pronouncing the word as carmel means something different, a place in California, another objection goes. And fans of the three-syllable pronunciation will tell you that it is older and is connected etymologically to the French word caramel (meaning  “burnt sugar”).  

These are bogus objections to the two-syllable pronunciation, often raised by people looking to pick a linguistic fight. Plenty of English words have pronunciations that do not match their spelling, as any silent letter will tell you. And the existence of a city called and spelled Carmel. Many words can be pronounced in more than one way. The French etymology is a fun fact too, but history is no guide to a word’s contemporary pronunciation. We eat breakfast, not “break-fast,” and use handkerchiefs not “hand-kerchiefs.”

What about dictionaries? The three-syllable pronunciation of caramel is the only one given in the 1934 Webster’s Second International Dictionary. However, both options appear in the 1961 Webster’s Third, though the two-syllable one is marked with an obelus (a ÷ sign). That signaled the dictionary editors’ feeling that it was “a pronunciation variant that occurs in educated speech but that is considered by some to be questionable or unacceptable.” The current online Merriam Webster gives both the two-syllable and three-syllable variants. So, dictionary-wise, the expert opinion today is that either pronunciation is fine.

“History is no guide to a word’s contemporary pronunciation.”

The carmel-caramel issue sometimes comes up in regional dialect studies. Bert Vaux’s 2003 Harvard Dialect Study crowdsourced opinions about 122 variable features of English pronunciation, grammar, and word usage. Of the 11,609 people who responded to his question about caramel, 38.02% said they pronounced it with two syllables (as “car-ml” in his prompt) and 37.66% said they pronounced the word with three syllables (as “carra-mel”). Vaux documented some regional variation, with respondents in New England, the Mid-Atlantic states, and the South tending to have more three-syllable pronunciations and those in the West, the Midlands, and the inland North having more two-syllable pronunciations. Some of the respondents also said they used both pronunciations interchangeably—17.26% of them.   

There is another wrinkle as well. Some speakers have told me that the two- and three- syllable pronunciations actually have different meanings. In my experience, they tend to be people who know their way around a kitchen and have some experience baking. For them, the two-syllable version refers to caramel in its solid form—the little square candies made by Kraft, or the glaze on caramel corn or a caramel apple. Three-syllable caramel is the liquid form or the flavoring, I’m told. Bert Vaux’s survey also noticed that nearly 4% of his respondents said that the two forms had different meanings, but he did not report what the difference was. 

If you add together the folks who can pronounce caramel either way and the ones who make a semantic distinction between solid and liquid, that comes to about 21%. The rest of the those surveyed seem to have a preference. But that’s all it is at this point: a preference. 

The not-so-great caramel debate has been around for a while. If you search newspaper databases for “pronounce caramel,” you’ll find worried readers asking about the so-called correct pronunciation of caramel as early as the 1950s. Perhaps this was because radio and television’s Kraft Music Hall promoted its caramels using an announcer who was a two-syllable man. Lexicographer Bergen Evans, answering a 1959 query about the word, explained that the two-syllable version “is used by so-many well-educated American that it must be accepted as a permissible alternative.” 

It’s worth noting too that some people also worried about whether chocolate should have two or three syllables. 

What do you say?

Featured image: “Beautiful sunset at Carmel by the Sea” by David Balmer. CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Y

    Caramel is 3 syllables. Car-a-mel. When in doubt, just check the Syllable Dictionary at https://www.HowManySyllables.com

  2. Martin Smith

    In my 70+ years I have never heard the two-syllable pronunciation. Is it a purely American habit?

  3. Shayna Kravetz

    Carmel, Calif. is almost certainly named after the biblical Mount Carmel, which has no etymological connection at all with sweet caramel.

  4. Jim Shapiro

    Growing up in the U.S. NE in the ‘70s I had only heard caramel pronounced with three syllables until I saw this commercial: https://youtu.be/bQCbDwiqEH8

    The fact that this jingle—totally reliant on the two-syllable pronunciation—made it to air in 1979 suggests that the battle for two-syllable caramel legitimacy had at that point already been won

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