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Thursday, September 16, 2010

You Say Srimp, I Say Shrimp. (And Then I Go Research the Issue.)

I'm always interested in the various ways people pronounce words. We don't get a lot of to-MAY-to vs. to-MAH-to disputes around here (it's more like to-MAY-to vs. mater), but one word I have always been curious about is the alternate pronunciation of shrimp. Instead of the sh- sound at the beginning, I have noticed that some people pronounce it srimp. Who's correct? And why don't these folks also pronounce shrub as srub?

I turned to the trusty Oxford English Dictionary, and as usual, it explained it all. There's one official way to pronounce ye olde shrimp, and it's with the sh sound at the beginning. So why do I keep hearing about srimp étouffée?

Apparently I am not the only one for whom this question is a burning issue, but my company is small. I could find only one article that addresses the mighty shrimp vs. srimp debate, from a December 1941 issue of American Speech. In it, the author, George Reese, quickly points out that a variation is not incorrect, but rather, he endeavors to find out the source of it. Apparently swapping out the sh- for a s- is common in many areas of England and dates back to the 13th century. In the United States, it's usually confined to the South and creeps up the Atlantic seaboard. Virginians seem especially fond of their srimp cocktails.

While Reese makes the claim that it's not incorrect to use this variation, he does quote at length from an 1856 text, Punctuation and Improprieties of Speech, which goes beyond the polite term "incorrect." Allow me to quote at length as well, because I find it hilarious:

"Sometimes the words shrink, shriek, shrine, &c., are pronounced as if written srink, sriek, srine, the letter h being entirely suppressed. This is the affected pronunciation of over-refined school girls, who cannot bring themselves to utter the homely English sound of sh when combined with an r, for fear apparently of distorting their faces. The utterance of this combination of sounds certainly does require a projection of the lips beyond what is beautiful, but still all good authority requires that these and similar words should have the full sound of the sh as in show, shine" (253).

Am I the only one who finds this a laugh riot? I'm imagining a bunch of 19th century schoolgirls huddling together and making fun of the brave girl who dares to extend her lips beyond what is beautiful in order to shriek, "Which one of you shrews placed a shriveled shrimp on my shroud?"

Reese, George H. "Pronunciation of 'Shrimp,' 'Shrub,' and Similar Words. American Speech. Vol. 16, No. 4 (Dec. 1941), pp. 251-255.


  1. Thanks! I heard "srimp" used when I was a waiter and always wondered about it. Your blog was greatly appreciated by this fellow wordnerd.

  2. Thank you! I am mocked by my teenage son who asks if I'd like sredded srimp and musroom pizza for dropping the h in shrimp. Love the article. Good laugh!!!!

  3. I'm so glad you wrote this! There's a TV ad currently running that uses the srimp pronunciation, and I was hoping someone had already investigated that quirk and written about it online.


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