OK, all you prescriptivists, here’s something for you to obsess about: the word daguerreotype should have an acute accent on the second e and be pronounced “dagairraioteep”; don’t take my word for it, take Edgar Allan Poe’s:

This word is properly spelt Daguerréotype, and pronounced as if written Dagairraioteep. The inventor’s name is Daguerre, but the French usage requires an accent on the second e, in the formation of the compound term.

In the same Alexander’s Weekly Messenger essay of Jan. 15, 1840, we find an interesting precursor of the word photography:

We have not now space to touch upon the history of the invention, the earliest idea of which is derived from the camera obscure, and even the minute details of the process of photogeny (from Greek words signifying sun-painting) are too long for our present purpose. [Emphasis added.]

Thanks to Laputan Logic for reproducing the Poe piece.


  1. I usually pronounce it da-grr-a-type with the main emphasis on grr and secondary emphasis on type — is this the generally accepted incorrect way of doing it?

  2. Yep, Jeremy, that’s pretty close to how we art historians usually say it (though we say “da-GAIR-a-type” — no “grr”). I’m sort of surprised I’ve never heard anyone pronounce it as Poe recommends — we tend to be such nitpickers about that stuff (mental image of Dutch art professor trying to get us all to say “Gerrit Dou” correctly). It’s not French, but at least it has the sanction of accepted usage.

  3. I pronounce it like xiaolongnu, and like her I’m sort of surprised the “correct” (per Poe and the French) pronunciation vanished so utterly — by 1894 (when the OED fascicle containing the word appeared) only the modern pronunciation was given. I guess the Safires of the day had other things on their minds.

  4. Actually, on further thought I don’t find it so odd, given the sequence of development of photographic techniques. Here’s my hypothesis:
    Daguerreotype was the first photographic technique to make it out of the science lab and into the studio — Daguerre sold the rights to his eponymous process to the French government in 1839. Pretty quickly thereafter, others tried to find alternative processes to either compete with the daguerreotype or to correct some of its most obvious problems (like the fact that there’s no negative — you get only one image per exposure). Many if not most of these processes were given names that also used the “-otype” or “-type” suffix by analogy to the daguerreotype, such as the calotype, cyanotype, ambrotype, tintype a.k.a. ferrotype a.k.a. melainotype, and Woodburytype. All of these processes came into popular use in the mid-19th century, well before the OED fascicle of 1894. Add to this the fact that many, though not all, of the innovators who came up with these processes were working in the English-speaking world. Indeed, the calotype was invented (by William Henry Fox Talbot) at about the same time as the daguerreotype, and Talbot being English, there was probably little reason for him to insist on a French pronunciation for the term. Thus it does not seem surprising that the English pronunciation of “daguerreotype” took over from the French pretty early on, probably by analogy to all the other English “-types” floating around.
    If you’re interested in a good online history of photography, btw, here’s one: A History of Photography from its Beginnings to the 1920s

  5. I think she’s got it… by George, she’s got it!
    And thanks for the history.

  6. Thanks for the link, Steve.
    Also for those interested in the subject, I’ve put up a bit more on the invention of photography and the work of Daguerre’s former business partner Nicéphore Niépce at Laputan Logic.

  7. And what’s the deal with that name Niépce? You don’t often see an acute accent used in a context like that.

  8. The problem with stressing the GAIR is that in the man’s name, the stress, such as it is, is on the first syllable. He’s commemorated by a Rue Daguerre in the 14th. If you want to go there, don’t ask a Paris taxi driver to take you to the street of war.

  9. And what’s the deal with that name Niépce? You don’t often see an acute accent used in a context like that.
    I’m afraid I don’t know, I’m having a little trouble even knowing how to pronounce it.

  10. John: Good lord! I’m pretty sure “nyeps” comes closest, but some of those alleged pronunciations are pretty weird.
    jam: I’m not sure what you’re talking about. The stress in French, such as it is, is on the last syllable, and Daguerre sounds exactly like “de guerre” except for the first vowel. I know rue Daguerre very well (I went there every morning for café crème and pain au chocolat when I was hanging out in the 14ème) and I never had any problems with comprehension when I mentioned it to the locals.

  11. I make it “Nièpce”, pron. as above, that being the spelling of the Museum and the Lycée named after him in Chalon sur Saône. (Also the birthplace of Vivant Denon — the guy they named the new wing in the Louvre after, and a very interesting sort.)

  12. Oh, and the Petit Robert has a certain word spelled as “daguerréotype”.

  13. I am relieved to learn this; silent `e’ before another vowel always bothered me.

  14. I make it “Nièpce”, pron. as above, that being the spelling of the Museum and the Lycée named after him in Chalon sur Saône.
    Thanks for that, although now I’m a little confused.
    I made a point of lifting that spelling from French online sources but it appears that even there there’s quite a bit of confusion. While a Google search did tend to (dramatically) favour Niépce over Nièpce, a lot of these sites proved to be quite inconsistent with many French sites even using both spellings on a single page!
    In the light of this, I’m thinking that your two sources use the authoritative spelling (as does the Wikipedia) so I’ll change it in my blog post as well.

  15. Here are some quick refs for the “Nièpce” spelling — Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, Ceram’s Archeology of the Cinema, Martin Jay, Downcast Eyes. Sorry all 3 are Anglophone (although reputable) — as you probably know, it’s rare to find a French book with an index of proper nouns in it, so I’m pleading laziness on that one.
    Accents in French, btw, are going the way of the apostrophe in English. That is, everywhere.

  16. Thanks, Marco, much appreciated. Not knowing much French, I had assumed that accents were well understood things and used with great care. I guess that presupposition comes from learning a smattering of pin yin (Chinese) a few years ago.

  17. Re: Pronunciation of Nicéphore Niepce:
    I’m for giving Ms. Spinster (she of the soon-to-be-published Ms. Spinster’s 101 Versed Popular Rules of Grammar the last word on this:
            Rule No. 2 2 Negative—Be Positive!
    A ‘Nice’ young man in photo-graphic rapture:
    Nicéphore Niepce had finally managed to capture
    The image of his belle amie’s beauté
    For all who’d one day be postérité.
    A positively captivating sight,
    And (joy!) he’d captured her-—in black and white.
    “It’s made of your belle form, chérie, a statement
    Before it fades—forever in abatement!”
    She couldn’t say his name (nee-say-FOR nyEEPS)
    So called him Nice for short—but not for keeps!
    She gazed. “Um…er…eet’s all so…er…uh… Nice.”
    (That tone. Was there in it a tinge of ice?)
    “I like zat all in me is virgin white
    You’ve made black as ze blackest français night.
    I like zat you have made—for all to see—
    A statement zat’s so negateev of me.
    Oui! got ze oppozeet of me, most clever
    So…so…trés Nice of you—and zees forever!
    Au revoir!” Nice learned (by negative of warm):
    Put statements [way too late] in positive form.

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