If you’re looking for a simple way to start a playful argument and turn people against each other in (mostly!) good fun, ask what names they have for certain things. Especially if they come from all different parts of the United States, such a conversation is bound to turn up all sorts of linguistic curiosities. Ask what their preferred word is for a long sandwich on a roll. Ask if they drink from a “water fountain” or a “bubbler.” Any of these regional words that instantly reveal where you grew up are sure to lead to a fascinating conversation.
But in one contentious instance, the word itself is the same, but there are two vastly different—and polarizing—pronunciations. It’s that oval-shaped nut that tastes really good in a pie: the pecan.
How did you just read that word in your head? With the emphasis on the first syllable, like “PEE-can,” or on the second, as “puh-KAHN”? No matter which you say, you’re probably stalwartly convinced that your pronunciation is the right one and cringe when you hear it said the other way. People get very passionate about their pecan pronunciation—but is one actually “right”?
First of all, it’s not a regional thing
A common misconception about the pecan pronunciation is that northerners say “PEE-can” and southerners say “puh-KAHN.” It’s not actually a clean regional split. According to a survey from the National Pecan Shellers Association, 70 percent of people living in the Northeast pronounced it “PEE-can”—but so did 45 percent of southerners. While this might seem downright traitorous to some people in the South, others will passionately stand by “PEE-can.” For instance, Steven Petrow from the Washington Post made it his mission to conduct extensive research on pecan pronunciation after being excoriated by scores of North Carolinians for saying “puh-KAHN.”
How to pronounce pecan: The case for “puh-KAHN”
If you explore the history of the word, you’ll quickly develop a strong case for “puh-KAHN.” It comes from the Native American word pakani, which evolved into the American-French pacane. There’s no “E” in sight in the first syllable of those words, both of which would have put the emphasis on the second syllable. All you have to do is check an online dictionary. Both Dictionary.com and Merriam-Webster list “puh-KAHN” as the first pronunciation and provide the audio for that pronunciation. (Nut) case closed.
How to pronounce pecan: The case for “PEE-can”
A pecan is a nut, not a Star Trek villain! The last three letters are “-can,” so how does rhyming them with “gone” make sense? After all, it would be ridiculous if anyone pronounced “toucan” as “tou-KAHN,” right? Why is “pecan” any different?
And, though survey results on the topic have varied vastly, the National Pecan Shellers Association found that “PEE-can” was the preferred pronunciation among 45 percent of Americans. The other 55 percent were split between “puh-KAHN” and “PEE-kahn”—an interesting hybrid of the two. Clearly some people want to have their pecan pie and eat it too. So the survey proved that “PEE-can” makes a very strong showing, at least on the East Coast.
And let’s not forget, what the dictionary says matters far less in the long run than what the people say. Just look at all of these words added to the dictionary in 2019. Why were they added to the dictionary? Because people said them. And, sure, maybe “puh-KAHN” shows up as the first dictionary pronunciation on dictionary sites, but “PEE-can” is listed there too. It’s in the dictionary, so you can’t say it’s flat-out wrong, can you?
How to pronounce pecan: The pecan experts weigh in
Alexander Ott, Executive Director of the American Pecan Council, offers this explanation for why Americans pronounce “pecan” differently: because pecans themselves are “grown in so many different places—15 states from coast to coast,” he told Reader’s Digest And is one pecan pronunciation “right”? Not according to the APC. “Any and all pronunciations are welcome as long as the pecans are being eaten!” Ott says.
Bottom line is: The pecan authorities are neutral in this squabble, so maybe go easy on proponents of other pecan pronunciations. And hey, at least the view that there’s no “right” way to say it can allow those fun pronunciation-related discussions to live on. Here are some more words that Americans can’t agree on how to pronounce.