March 02, 2021
Ok, friends. We are here to settle the debate once and for all; though, stepping into the tenuous debate about pecan pronunciation is something we don’t take lightly. Many in our Tennessee Valley Pecan Company community pronounce the name of our star nut perfectly, and we still love those who have their own flair! But, this is a debate that seems to rage on between family members, friends, wedding attendees, and so many more communities so we felt the need to join in the…fun. We’ve even made a kitchen towel that pokes fun at the discrepancies. Can’t we all use a little more levity in our lives?
If you’re curious what pronunciation rises to the top, read on – just promise us that you won’t cast us aside like the whacky uncle at your Thanksgiving dinner if it differs from what you grew up hearing. Or, like how Steven Petrow was blindsided as outlined in this Washington Post article (it’s a great read, by the way!).
According to Merriam-Webster, the first known use of the word “pecan” (as we know it) dates back to 1761 – and was pronounced “puh-kahn.” Wouldn’t you have loved to be a fly on the wall for that conversation? Perhaps the original person who used it was complimenting someone’s “nut” [pecan] pie at a soirée.
The word itself was derived from the Native American word, pacane. In fact, pecans were so popular among Native Americans – due to their taste, availability, and ease to crack – they were briefly used as a form of currency. So, pecans aren’t necessarily new to the popular kids’ club and we’re totally fine with that. Our goal is to make them accessible for all!
When pecans were brought to the Northeastern U.S. in the 1760s, their nuts were harvested and moved from Illinois – and were creatively labeled an “Illinois nut,” to the shock of many of us in the South, we’re sure. Ultimately, the Native American derivative of the pronunciation is what stuck, even though we all argue about the specific pecan pronunciation to this day.
Is the pecan pronunciation really a regional difference, as so many believe? It’s hard for us to believe that was true…in our corner of Alabama, our customers will swear by their unique versions of it. In all fairness, it is pronounced every which way to Sunday, with PUH-KAHN and PEE-CAN taking the top two rankings. Of course, regional differences in many forms are fading with the frequency of our communities that are on the move.
Need some official data to make the case that the pecan pronunciation isn’t a regional split? The National Pecan Shellers Association conducted a poll (much larger than our poll on Instagram) that determined 70% of Northerners pronounce it “PEE-can” and 45% of Southerners did the same. So, this isn’t just as simple as claiming your Northern or Southern roots…sorry if that ruins any long-standing theories for folks. It just means we must keep digging!
Though similar to a regional difference, one theory does make a little more sense. Not perfect sense, but some sense nonetheless. The possibility exists that a more pronounced difference is found between urban and rural populations, as explained by Kathleen Purvis. Again, this is not strict, but is most likely a little more accurate than a true North vs. South demarcation.
The linguistics department at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee offered another option in this debate...when using the word as part of a compound word (pecan pie, for example), folks have a tendency to emphasize the first half of the word with, "PEE-can." If simply using the word by itself, though, many will revert to "pee-KAHN." How interesting! If you're curious about a few of the other trends related to this theory, check out a great article here.
Officially, the following pronunciations are most prevalent:
And, just in case you were curious about a little more than specific pronunciations, here are some fun facts about the word, "pecan:"
So, what is the verdict? We can all rest assured that there is no one proper pronunciation for the word pecan; though, the most accepted is "pi-KAHN." The word pecan originated from the Algonquin term pacane and the iteration we are most familiar with was used in the mid-1700s. From there, pronunciation trends really seem to vary. As opposed to being a Northern vs. Southern United States difference, the most likely explanation for differences is the adoption of different pronunciations in rural and urban communities, as well as the context of the word usage itself - either by itself or as a compound word.
Let us know in the comments how YOU say pecan and just how adamant you are that it is the correct pronunciation.
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