Magazine article The Spectator

Mind Your Language Lichen

Magazine article The Spectator

Mind Your Language Lichen

Article excerpt

On an article in the Times about eating oak moss I saw the headline: ' I 'm lichen it!' Since I pronounce lichen to rhyme with kitchen, this meant little to me.

You may think that I have no business pronouncing lichen in this way. That is the strong opinion of my husband. But to him lichen is Latin (lichen planus, lichen simplex, denoting skin diseases). The Oxford English Dictionary says that the kitchen pronunciation is 'now rare in educated use'. But by 'now' it means 1902.

I suspect that readers who would otherwise understand the play on words in the Times headline are given to my 'uneducated' version.

I t is in any case not so simple.

The word is in origin Greek, not in use in E nglish before the 18th century, although Philemon Holland's translation of Pliny, of 1601, rather charmingly mentions that there is 'a certain skinny gum, in Greek called Lichen, which hath a wonderfull operation to cure the rhagadies or chaps'. But in Benjamin Smart's Grammar of English Pronunciation (1810), my kitchen pronunciation is the only one given. Smart (17871872) supported his wife and five children by teaching elocution and writing on grammar. …

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