crescent

 Reader Sam Fox wrote in with the question:

I am an American, a Midwesterner all my life, though I have traveled quite a bit..  

On a recent visit to London I was surprised to hear the word “crescent” in the tube stop Mornington Crescent pronounced with a z rather than s.  I think I heard other examples of unexected intervocalic voicing.  Is this something you have noticed?

I have noticed it, particularly since I've had the word crescent is in my address. But I was surprised to find that UK dictionaries don't seem to agree about it at all.


In the /s/ camp:

  • The Oxford English Dictionary (a historical dictionary) [first picture]

  • Google [picture 2] 
  • Cambridge 

  • And all of the American dictionaries (Merriam-Webster, Webster's New World, Dictionary.com, American Heritage)


In the /z/ camp:    
  • Lexico (which comes from the people at Oxford Dictionaries) 
  • Macmillan (picture 3)



And presenting both, always with /z/ as the second option::
  • Collins, in both their English dictionary and in the COBUILD (learner's) dictionary. (picture 4)
  • Longman



Since the OED has only the /s/ and since /s/ > /z/ between vowels is the more likely phonological process, we can assume that the /z/ is somewhat new compared to the /s/, and so it's particularly interesting that two of the British sources only have the /z/. If anyone in the US says it with a /z/, I don't know about them. So we can say that this /z/ is a BrE pronunciation, but not the BrE pronunciation. (When it comes to pronunciation, there's probably next to nothing that one can count as the BrE.)

So how prevalent is the /z/ in the UK?  And who says it?

I listened to more than 50 examples on YouGlish, discounting a few along the way because they were the same person again or the person seemed not to have a UK accent. Of the 47 I counted, 23 had /z/, 23 had /s/, and one, by Alan Bennett, I just couldn't tell. So the dictionaries that have both seem to have good reason for it. 

At first, I was getting mostly /s/ and I thought that it was because there were a lot of 'posh' voices giving lectures about the Fertile Crescent. But as I went on, it became clear how varied the speakers who say /s/ or /z/ are. Both were said by young and old. Both were said by fancily educated people. There were a couple of Scottish voices that said /s/, but other than that it felt like both /s/ and /z/ were hearable around much of England. Among the /z/-sayers were Professor Brian Cox (from near Manchester, in his 50s) and Jeremy Paxman (in his 70s, born in Leeds but raised in Hampshire and sounding very much like his Cambridge education). I wonder if there are any dialectologists out there who could give us a bit more insight about whether this /z/ is particularly associated with one place or another? It doesn't seem to be a variation that was captured in the Cambridge Dialect App

Going beyond crescent, there are other spelled-s-pronounced-/z/ cases that contrast between AmE and some BrE speakers. The Accent Eraser*  site lists these ones, a couple of which I've written about before (see links).
  • Eraser
  • Blouse
  • Diagnose
  • Greasy**
  • Opposite
  • Resource
  • Vase
  • Mimosa
  • Crescent
  • Joseph (click on the link to see a lot more personal names with this difference)
These are lexical pronunciations—that is, speakers just learn to pronounce the word that way on a word-by-word basis, rather than a rule-based pronunciation, where the pronunciation is 'conditioned' by its pronunciation environment and it happens to all words that contain that environment. We can tell this isn't a phonologically conditioned variant because fleecy, which has an /s/ sound between the same vowels as in greasy, is never "fleezy". There's nothing these words have in common that makes them all go toward the same pronunciation—some are between vowels (a place where it's easy for consonants to take on voicing), but others are word-final. Some may have been pushed toward /z/-ness due to their similarity with other /z/-pronounced words: greasy–easy, resource–resort, and the like. 

My intuition about them is that they're very irregular across people. I just played a 'guess the word' game with my south-London-born spouse (50s), and he used /z/ for all of these except greasy and opposite, for which he used /s/. Who knows why?

I haven't got the time now to see how regular dictionaries are about their representations of these, but it strikes me that this would make a nice little undergraduate student project!

*Eek! "Accent erasing" is not something a linguist likes to endorse—you can be an accent replacer, but not an accent eraser.

** Forgot to mention: you do hear greasy with a /z/ in AmE. I think of it as southern, someone on Twitter said they think of it as midlands, but a friend from my northeastern hometown says it, so it's kind of irregular too.

40 comments

  1. NW London, b. 1946, always heard and said with /z/; I hadn't noticed the /s/ version before seeing this post. (also all the others on your list with /z/, except "greasy".

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  2. Comment-catching comment. :)

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  3. For what it's worth, I *think* I pronounce all those words the same way your spouse does. I'm 40s, and grew up in Yorkshire and Northumberland — though I've now said “opposite” to myself so many times, I'm no longer sure which of those is my natural pronunciation.

    The only person I remember noticing saying “greasy” with /z/ was my Scout leader; he had an Irish background, though not an Irish accent.

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  4. Wikipedia lists AussieA2, blouse (noun), blouson, complaisantA2, crescentB2, dextrose, diagnoseA2, erase, fuselageA2, mimosa, parse, ruseA2, talisman, treatise, valise, venisonB2, visaA2, xylose

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  5. Wow, this one really caught me off guard. I (US, west coast) say all those words with /s/, and would never consider using a /z/ pronounciation ... until you got to "opposite". I'm 99% certain that I say "opposite" with a /z/ all the time, though I've never thought about it before. I don't think of it as the correct pronunciation, though; it's more of a casual, lazy pronunciation, and would probably disappear if I were e.g. enunciating clearly over a bad phone connection.

    (That said, I have _heard_ "greasy" with a /z/ before, once or twice. In my mind I had assumed it was an intentional mispronunciation, meant to inject connotations of words like "sleazy". But it makes more sense that it would just be a regional variant.)

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    1. Me too (US Northeast)

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  6. I (40s, Yorkshire but with parents from different places) and my husband (40s, Warwickshire) - now living in Surrey - have agreed that our pronunciation of crescent varies, though we aren't sure exactly when and why! I'm fairly sure I grew up with the z-sound in street names.

    For what it's worth, I'd say eraser, blouse, diagnose, vase with a definite z; greasy and Joseph with a definite s (and I've never heard them pronounced any other way); opposite, resource, crescent could go either way; and I don't think I've ever had occasion to say mimosa!

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  7. In the hardcopy edition of the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary by John Wells, under crescent there's a little graph of /z/ vs. /s/ pronunciation by age from a poll conducted in 1988, rising from ~45% /z/ for older speakers to ~85% /z/ for younger speakers. (Lots of interesting words in that poll, from absorb to zebra.)

    Crescent is also featured in English After RP: Standard British Pronunciation Today by Geoff Lindsey (2019), which says (in a "mini dictionary" of words with changing pronunciations):
    "In RP, the preferred pronunciation of this word contained a voiceless /s/. Today the preferred pronunciation contains voiced /z/, although the /s/ pronunciation is still quite widely heard. Americans prefer /s/. See also exit, mausoleum, newspaper and transit."

    On the other hand, you *didn't* see a young vs. old pattern on Youglish. Maybe none of these surveys were big and representative enough.

    (American, only ever heard it with /s/ myself)

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    1. That's fantastic, thanks! I didn't see a young/old pattern, but the peopel who were young in 1988 are now a lot older...

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  8. About this /s/ pronunciation of "opposite". I'd never heard of such a thing, then went to Merriam-Webster.com and noticed that it provides two pronunciations of the word -- the one I'm used to, with three syllables (ˈä-pə-zət) and another with two (ˈäp-sət). Lynne: does your husband use this two-syllable pronunciation? Or does he use three syllables and nonetheless avoid the /z/?

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    1. Three syllables. You know, I've studied antonyms for a living and I'm really not sure which I say!

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    2. I guess it makes sense that /s/ would occur in the two-syllable version, since it's following another unvoiced consonant -- otherwise the slurring would start to sound like "ob-sit".

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  9. AmE speaker: “opposite” sounds right to me both ways (though I’m pretty sure I say it with an “s”). All of the other words on the list sound wrong to me with the “z” pronunciation, but I think “rezources” is making inroads into AmE because some of my (American) coworkers pronounce it that way.

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  10. My step-mother, born in 1909, and native to New Jersey for all of her life, used /z/ in certain words such as "greas/zy". Used to drive me nuts since the rest of us always said it with an "s".

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  11. I attended one collegiate football game during my six years of undergrad + grad school: my school, UC Berkeley, against Santa Clara University. I remember nothing about the game, but I clearly remember the loathsome cheer offered by my fellow Cal students: "Pork chops, pork chops / Greasy, greasy / Santa Clara women/ Are easy, easy." I'd never known "greasy" to rhyme with "easy"; it sounded vaguely Southern (not to mention misogynistic and irrelevant) to my inexperienced ears, but of course we were all in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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  12. As a Canadian who spent much of her childhood in Scotland, I pronounce almost all of the words in your list with a /z/, the exceptions being "opposite", "mimosa" and "crescent" which I pronounce with an /s/. I think many other Canadians would share most of my pronunciations except for "greasy"; my pronunciation of which is a source of great merriment to my partner and children.

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    1. Canadian, and while I have /s/ for most of them, I can't imagine saying 'blouse' or 'resource' with anything other than /z/ (if I try, they sound like completely different words). 'Opposite. is sort of borderline.

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  13. Old, West of Scotland (Ayr), resident in Italy since 1980; historical philologist; studied RP for years and am not entirely consistent as a result - if I am totally relaxed, I am more markedly Scottish.
    Eraser Diagnose Vase Mimosa Opposite (but this last, if I turn on my full native accent, with s) with z
    Blouse Greasy Crescent Joseph with s
    Resource: I'm not sure. I think I may vary on this one.
    Greazy sounds greasier than greasy :-); crezent sounds totally foreign to me.
    .

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  14. In honor of my mother, I’d like to add venison to this discussion.

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  15. AmE speaker long resident in France and with BrE speaker SO. I first heard "crescent" with a z on Radio 4 when I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue would feature a round of Mornington Crescent. Humphrey Lyttleton usually said it with an s, more or less (the Alan Bennett approach?), but various team members used the z. I'm only commenting because you can't have a discussion of crescent without Mornington. It's against the original modern rules.

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  16. 'greasy' is traditionally considered to be a marker of Northern vs. Southern and Midland dialects in the US. The American Heritage Dictionary discusses it here: https://www.ahdictionary.com/word/search.html?q=greasy

    Sam Fox

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    1. This 1958 video about American accents uses the pronunciation of "greasy" to establish accent regions in the part from 4:00-6:00: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hIvBSMxRG9Q&t=378s.

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  17. Another "s" vs. "z" sound that I heard once in an advertisement on the radio (here in the States), which pronunciation brought me up short (but which I suspect is not in the least bit common anywhere) is "electricity." The word was pronounced "e-leg-driz-iddy." Sounded like a lazy tongue to me.

    With regard to "greasy" - "s" or "z" sound - in northern New England, slushy snow on the roads is referred to as "greasy" with a "z" sound, for its slipperiness. Sometimes the roads are actually greasy, when oils and exhaust accumulate on the pavement because of a lack of rain - once moisture comes into contact with this invisible accumulation, whether as rain, drizzle, mist, or fog, it is very slippery until enough traffic has passed over it, mixing it with the moisture so it washes or is splashed away.

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  18. Whoa! Born in 1949, raised in central Texas, and my pronunciations of these things are all over the place. "Blouse" always has a z; "greasy" and "Joseph" can go either way (but probably more commonly z), I guess depending mostly on the mood I'm in. The rest always have s, although I sometimes say REsource and sometimes reSOURCE; no idea why.

    Someone mentioned venison, which I think I usually say with a z but often with an s.

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    1. Maybe you differentiate between the noun and the verb resource?

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    2. Nope, not that I can tell. Makes no sense at all!

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  19. What about other -escent words? Incandescent, fluorescent, evanescent, opalescent etc. These are less common than "crescent", but is there a tendency to voice the sound /s/ in these as well? and what about words like adjacent, complacent etc., where the first vowel is represented by the letter a?

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  20. Oh, and here's another one that briefly became important a few years ago: Theresa.

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    1. There is a link in the post to another post about that

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  21. I live on a Crescent in Melbourne, Australia, and all three people here at the moment say /z/

    A comment abive re: -escent words? Incandescent, fluorescent, evanescent, opalescent - I say /s/ for all of them.

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  22. 74, born in Arkansas, 60+ years in SoCal
    Eraser - s
    Blouse - s for the noun, z for the verb
    Diagnose - s
    Greasy** - s usually unless recently exposed to Southern relatives
    Opposite - s almost always, three syllables
    Resource - s, Z would sound like a different word
    Vase - s
    Mimosa - s, never would have thought of a z
    Crescent - s, again, a z would not occur to me
    Joseph - s/z almost equally
    Venison - s, z I've heard but don't think I use it

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  23. 61, born in Australia, 31+ years in SoCal
    Eraser - z, although s is creeping into my speech
    Blouse - z, never s
    Diagnose - z, never s
    Greasy - z, never s
    Opposite - s, whether I pronounce the middle o or not
    Resource - s
    Vase - z, hard to say s with the long a I use
    Mimosa - s
    Crescent - s
    Joseph - s
    Venison - s
    ...and Aussie is always Ozzie.

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  24. 68, Wirral – actually grew up in a place called Greasby, with the s always pronounced /z/, but I've always pronounced 'greasy' with /s/. I'm out on a limb with 'mimosa', which I always give an /s/. For the rest of the list it's always a /z/ for me.

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  25. I´m Irish (from midlands), and pronounce about half of that list with the /z/. (Crescent, vase, blouse, eraser, diagnose). For whatever it´s worth...

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  26. I'm British, 77, and I've always heard the word with /z/ though it always seemed anomalous — but the, so does 'dessert'

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  27. Even more strange and irritating - ‘precedent’ with /z/ in the middle

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  28. I thought the pronunciation might have shifted more where “crescent” is a not- uncommon location/address name. Americans hardly ever speak the word as part of everyday conversation. But the other examples don’t have that in common.

    It reminds me of the Great British Bake-Off/Baking Show where more than one contestant was unfamiliar with the word to describe a shape. And they’d have heard the word “croissant.”

    (US mid-Atlantic here)

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  29. Personal view (BrE) I can't imagine saying present with /s/, so it would seem strange that adding a 'c' would make the sound more /s/ than /z/ in crescent. But then scent is definitely /s/, and prescient which is also /s/, as is science etc., so maybe that is the value of the 'c' to make it more /s/ than /z. On that logic I'd have to conclude that crescent should be /s/, though I think laziness can lead to /z/ when I say it.
    And as ease has /z/ it would seem reasonable that easy would also be /z/, whereas grease has /s/ so consequently greasy is naturally also /s/.

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  30. British RP speaker, 50s, living in US for 20 years:
    I say crescent with an /s/ when describing the moon, and with a /z/ when in a street name. I think it's because I see them as two different entities (an actual crescent shape vs. one of many possible words for a road).

    For the other words on the list:
    I pronounce them all with a /z/ except:
    - greasy (I don't think I've ever heard it pronounced with a /z/)
    - resource (/s/ when the emphasis is on the first syllable, but /z/ in "resources", with the emphasis on the middle syllable)
    - mimosa

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  31. I realized after reading this that I say crescent with an /s/ when talking about the moon or the Red Crescent organization, and with a /z/ when talking about a street. The difference is probably because I think of them as two completely different things, respectively: 1) a specific shape; and 2) a street name (I guess I don't think about Crescents as necessarily being crescent shaped). Interesting!

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Abbr.

AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)