Monday, August 25, 2014

Why Don't Americans Spell "Pyjamas" Like the Rest of the English-Speaking World?

You might call them jammies. Perhaps you prefer jim-jams. Or maybe you're more hip than the rest of us and opt for P.J.s. Whatever you call them, it's likely your pet name for sleeping garments is tied to the word pyjamas. Unless, that is, you're American.

In American English, and this might come as a surprise (or perhaps not) to my British readers, the preferred spelling is pajamas. Now I know what you're thinking: there go the Americans, messing around with the English language again. Well, as ever, the answer is not quite that simple.

Firstly we have to go back to the origins of the word. As an item of clothing, pyjamas were first worn by Muslims in India and were referred to not (I hope you're sitting down for this one) as P.J.s, but as pai jamahs (from around 1800). Later, this evolved into the Hindi word pajama, at or around the time the garments became popular across Europe.

Notice anything interesting about the two early versions of the word? Pai jamahs probably reads as PY-JAHM-AZ to Western readers—perhaps accounting for the preferred present day spelling that exists outside of North America. However, you will notice that within the spelling of both pai jamahs and pajama the initial vowel sound is represented not by the letter y, but the letter alending credence to the present day American spelling.

Indeed, this very spelling is first attested from 1845. It was during the first half of the 19th century that many American spelling variants (color, meter, theater etc.) fell into standardised usage, following the publication of Noah Webster's dictionary (1828). Moreover, a new edition of that very resource book was published in 1845—the first to feature the Merriam imprint after the Merriam-Webster merger.

It is quite possible, therefore, that the word pyjamas—containing a needlessly complex representation of the initial vowel sound—was altered by American lexicographers (Webster had died in 1843) at this time. Whichever way you slice it, though, the American spelling is more in line with early versions of the word and, if anything, you could say it was the British who "messed with the English language."

That said—as with all British/American language differences—I would never presume to deem either usage incorrect. However, when it comes to actually wearing pyjamas, I'm very firmly in the "no" camp. But you probably didn't care to know that.

How do you spell pyjamas/pajamas? Also, do you even wear them? Let us know in the comments below.        

This article was written by Laurence Brown. Laurence is a British expat living in Indianapolis, Indiana. He is a contributor for BBC America and has written for Anglotopia. He is Editor-in-chief of Lost in the Pond and loves nothing more than to share these articles with anglophiles, expats, and other interested parties on social media. Follow Lost in the Pond on Facebook, Twitter and Google+.

10 comments:

Lisa Dorr-Pozos said...

Spell it 'pajamas,' but pronounce 'pyjamas' phonetically when I see it. :) (and my answer is "occasionally" ;) )

leemikcee said...

I second Lisa's comment, though I do use PJ's and jimjams as often as I use pajamas. And they're best for lounging about the house, not so much for sleeping in. ;-)

Expat said...

It seems you've lived away too long and have slipped over into the Dark Side....

Your comment "Whichever way you slice it, though, the American spelling is more in line with early versions of the word" is stupendous logic...

If the original spelling was "paijamas" then, yes, for those that have trouble spelling "pajamas" is easier .. but that is the limit of any "correct way to spell" discussion. If the original spelling was "pai..." then clearly there was a reason for that. Think of the sound. Think of "Thai" - would you accept the lazy spelling "Tha"? Very doubtful.

Perhaps the Brits were lazy in adopting "Py..." over "Pai..." - but at least they got the sound right.

"Pyjamas" - but more fondly "jim-jams".

Philip said...

Speaking as a native-born Indian, I would say that I and every other Indian I have ever known pronounce the first syllable as "puh," not "pih." Whatever the historical etymology of the word may have been, contemporary pronunciation by actual Indian people such as myself firmly aligns with the American spelling, not the British spelling.

Foddy said...

As a Brit, although expat for a longish while, I would still prefer pyjamas (or p.j's or jim-jams with my 9 year old), but have long since (at least 30 years) given up wearing them myself, so the spelling is largely academic.

JEL said...

fascinating :)

Anonymous said...

Having grown up using both British and American English (exactly half my life for each), I still have to google to see which one is which so people don't think I'm stupid. Honestly, for some words, both spellings look equally right to me, but I've had ignorant people tell me I spelled a word wrong, when in reality I technically didn't. I defer to the American spelling since I live in the US currently.

Yvette Thomas said...

And according to a local Catholic Priest if your family is getting too large you can limit the growth by putting them on backwards.

TexasKat said...

I often use spellings and words from other places just to mix it up and hopefully give pause and open curiosity. Honestly! I am struck dumb by the number of people who ask me to do their research for them!!!

Joolz said...

Thankyou for this :) I thought I was pronouncing it wrong after reading this article! Being a Brit I was taught to spell it pyjamas but have always pronounced it as 'puh'jamas :)

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