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Iceland's volcano a mouthful to say

By Tom Watkins, CNN
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Name that Icelandic volcano
  • Media outlets differ on pronunciation
  • Google search finds more than 2.5 million citations for the word

(CNN) -- An event as big as a volcano that disrupts transportation around the globe might be expected to have its name added to the English lexicon, perhaps meaning "to cause widespread disruption," an English-language monitor said Tuesday.

"People talk about a 'Krakatau,' right?" said Paul JJ Payack, president and chief word analyst of the Global Language Monitor, in a telephone interview. He was referring to the 1883 eruption of a volcano in Indonesia that unleashed a tsunami that killed more than 34,000 people.

Payack's Austin-Texas-based monitor analyzes and catalogues trends in word usage and word choices and their impact on culture, with an emphasis on English.

"Tsunami" itself has gained in usage since the 2004 South Asia event that left 245,000 people dead or missing across the region, said Payack.

"When prices collapsed economically, the first thing that they called it was an 'economic tsunami,'" he said.

But what happens when that volcano's name is Eyjafjallajokull, as in the Icelandic volcano whose ash clouds have grounded thousands of flights worldwide?

Payack was not optimistic. "I've never heard anybody pronounce it right yet, and I couldn't even try," he said.

There are very few words that appear millions of times in print yet can be pronounced by so few.
--Paul J.J. Payack, president of Global Language Monitor

The name pronunciation depends on whom you ask. Here's how a CNN Wire story put it in an editors' note: "AY-yah-FYET-lah-YOH-koot." And this from the Chicago Tribune: "EY-ya-fyat-lah-YOH-kuht."

And this from NPR: "AY-yah-fyah-lah-YOH-kuul."

However you pronounce it, it's a mouthful that is really three words in Icelandic meaning island mountain glacier.

A Google search finds more than 2.5 million citations for the word. "There are very few words that appear millions of times in print yet can be pronounced by so few," said Payack.

During the 1,400 years of the English language, it has adopted a number of proper names, including cesarian section, named after Julius Caesar, born through a procedure Shakespeare described as "plucked from his mother's womb;" the cardigan sweater, worn by the 7th Earl of Cardigan, who also led the Charge of the Light Brigade; and "shakespearean" for a literary masterpiece, Payack noted.

Whether the world's more than 1.5 billion English speakers will one day wrap their tongues around Eyjafjallajokull is an open question, he said.

"It depends how long the eruption goes," he said. "If this thing goes on, it will undoubtedly be a word, but one of the few in the English dictionary that no English speakers can actually pronounce."

The press officer for Iceland's Ministry of Foreign Affairs was expected to be the final arbiter.

But, when startled out of her slumber by a call after midnight and asked for the pronunciation, she punted. "You will need somebody who is wide awake for this," she said, then hung up the phone.

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