Geminee.

John Schwartz reports for the NY Times on an interesting bit of linguistic trivia concerning the history of space exploration:

So which is it? How do you pronounce Gemini? In “First Man,” the new film about the Neil Armstrong and the moon landing, astronauts and NASA officials say “GEM-uh-knee.” But the first pronunciation in the Webster’s New World College Dictionary Fifth Edition, the standard work used by The New York Times to settle such matters, the first pronunciation is GEM-uh-neye,” which is the way many of us say it. Or, to use the precise dictionary typography, jem′ə nī΄ versus jem′ənē΄. […]

On Tuesday, Bob Jacobs, a spokesman for NASA, said that the “knee” pronunciation is part of the agency’s culture, and serves almost as an insider’s shibboleth — a word whose proper delivery identifies you as someone in the know. “If you get it right,” he said, “you’re part of the space club.” He likened it to the Nashville street Demonbreun, which is pronounced Da-MUN-bree-un, and not like what some have characterized as “demon pickle juice.” Mr. Jacobs also suggested that the pronunciation could have to do with the early space program’s Southernness, in the way that “every pilot speaks like Chuck Yeager.”

And yet it wasn’t always so clear, said Bill Barry, the space agency’s chief historian. Back in the time of the Gemini program, “it kind of depended who you were talking to, and what day of the week it was,” and even varied from NASA locations, he said. […]

As for the filmmakers, Dr. Barry said that he suggested to them that for the sake of clarity, they pick one pronunciation and stick with it. “From my perspective, from 50 years later, whichever you want to use is fine.”

Yes! They’re both fine! Use whichever you prefer! I’m glad this invaluable message — applicable in many other contexts — is being spread. (For what it’s worth, I use the neye version.)

Comments

  1. I found this compilation of pronunciation of Gemini by the people associated with the program: https://youtu.be/c9CYT-vezbY?t=75

    It’s consistent.

  2. I wonder if people are consistent across different applications? Or are there people who would call the spacecraft “Gemi-knee” and the constellation, or the rigid inflatable boat, “Gemi-nigh”?

    I’ve only ever heard “knee”, I think… that would be consistent with the Latin pronunciation I was taught. “Gemi-nigh” would be how to pronounce “Geminae”.

  3. I must say that your usage of the letter G in spelling these pronunciations doesn’t unambiguously indicate the j sound (IPA [dʒ]).
    But seeing as all these NASA people anglicise the name so far as to use that sound, why cavil at someone for similarly anglicising the final i to [ai]? I thought that Gemini, like all the zodiac constellation-names, was pronounced in an anglicised way. After all, nobody says [wirgo] or [aries].

  4. Surely the “knee” pronunciation is also an anglicised way (and the way this Englishman pronounces it). Neither pronunciation seems particularly cavilworthy.

  5. I’ve only ever heard “knee”, I think… that would be consistent with the Latin pronunciation I was taught. “Gemi-nigh” would be how to pronounce “Geminae”.

    Are you saying /’gemini/, with “hard” g? That would be consistent with Latin pronunciation; if you’re using “soft” g (= English j), it’s a weird mishmash that I’m pretty sure you weren’t taught in Latin class.

    Neither pronunciation seems particularly cavilworthy.

    Exactly, which is one of the reasons I posted this.

  6. Doesn’t /’dʒɛmɪni/ resemble the ecclesiastical Latin pronunciation?

  7. Sure, but why would you use ecclesiastical Latin for that particular word?

  8. Bet-el-Jews or Bait-el-Jews or Beetle-juice?

    Foam alot?

    And what about Zubenelgenubi and Zubeneschalmi?

  9. J.W. Brewer says:

    I would have used the “normal” pronunciation of Gemini (with PRICE rather than FLEECE) as final syllable for the NASA sense as well as the astrological sense, but here’s a vintage clip of CBS coverage of a Gemini launch, and it sounds like default-GenAm-reference-accent speaker W. Cronkite had drunk the NASA-insider koolaid and is pronouncing it weird. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i7w8UIW6g1Q

    NB: it may be relevant I do not myself have contemporaneous memories of the Gemini program, but only of the Apollo program – the first moon landing occurred a few weeks after my 4th birthday and is certainly the first datable event of world-historical significance I can recall.

  10. Richard Hershberger says:

    I am reminded of the evergreen debate over how to pronounce “Celt.” Those who know nothing about the subject pronounce it like “selt,” because of the sports team (Boston or Glasgow, depending). Those who know a little about the subject pronounce it like “kelt” so as to distance themselves from those sports hooligan ignoramuses. Those who actually understand the issue know that both are fine, though I am told by my friend with the Ph.D. in medieval Welsh that various institutions tend to favor one or the other.

  11. @JWB: I wasn’t really aware of the “knee” pronunciation having any currency before seeing this thread. I knew about the Gemini program from reading space books as a child in the 90s, but I don’t suppose I’ve heard it spoken much.

  12. I don’t remember why, but back in the early 60s in New York I had a plastic model of a Gemini, and I called it Gem-ee-knee. Until I got back to Moscow and my English teacher demanded that I used the ‘correct’ version – Gem-ee-NIGH

  13. Sashura’s back online!

  14. And what about Zubenelgenubi and Zubeneschalmi?

    Zubeneschamali. The Southern Claw and the Northern Claw.

  15. Doesn’t /’dʒɛmɪni/ resemble the ecclesiastical Latin pronunciation?

    Yes – phrases from the Mass like “genitum non factum” have a soft g.

  16. I am reminded of the evergreen debate over how to pronounce “Celt.”

    In the very good “Huntingtower”, the retired Glasgow grocer Dickson McCunn hears the poet John Heritage talking about the need to sweep away “all the tired mysticism of the Kelt” and is confused because he, McCunn, pronounces it with a soft c and Heritage uses a hard c – “I thought a kelt was a kind of no-weel fush”, he comments. (And it is; a salmon which has already spawned and is therefore in the last days of its life.)

  17. Eli Nelson says:

    On the topic of zodiac/star signs, even if the fully anglicized pronunciation of “Gemini” is still common, the fully anglicized pronunciation of “Libra” seems to be rare nowadays. I always hear “leebra”. But “Pisces” seems to typically be pronounced with /aɪ/—which, although an anglicized value of I, isn’t actually entirely regular, since the -sc- cluster of the Latin word was heavy and so it would be regular to make the preceding vowel “short” in English. (Compare “proboscis”, which some people pronounce with /k/, but as far as I know nobody pronounces with /oʊ/ in the second syllable.) The rarity of /ˈpɪsiz/ seems like it might be partly because it contains the sequence /ˈpɪs/, which sounds rude.

  18. January First-of-May says:

    Bet-el-Jews or Bait-el-Jews or Beetle-juice?

    Battle-geyser, as far as I’m concerned (well, minus the final consonant, and give or take some details on vowels). Бетельгейзе.

    Apparently “beetle-juice” is closer to the original (despite the spelling). “Bet-el-Jews” should be closer yet.

  19. David Marjanović says:

    Бетельгейзе.

    Evidently, this has gone through a German spelling-pronunciation.

  20. John Cowan says:

    The sc of Pisces is /s/, a single consonant in English, and that’s why the preceding vowel is long in English. Latin vowel length and consonant clusters determine the stress in both English and Latin, but they have no effect on the quality of the English vowel.

  21. I’d disagree, at least regarding consonant clusters: it’s very rare for English to use a long vowel before an orthographic Latinate geminate. There’s no way, for example, that perennial could have ever ended up as */pəˈɹiːniəl/. Soft sc may be a little dicier, but I think visceral, eviscerate and proboscis show a general preference for a short vowel.

  22. In England in the 1960s JEM-in-ee was the usual, I’m guessing the only pronunciation before the spacecraft was mentioned, presumably by NASA officials. How did Werner von Braun and Peter Sellers pronounce it?

  23. My 13th edition (1967) of Jones’s Pronouncing Dictionary has “(constellation) ˈdʒeminai [-niː, -ni], (aircraft) dʒemini.” So -eye for the constellation, -ee for the aircraft.

  24. Well, the aircraft is British, so it makes sense that it would use the British pronunciation.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miles_Gemini

  25. Well, both pronunciations are British.

  26. “In England in the 1960s JEM-in-ee was the usual, I’m guessing the only pronunciation before the spacecraft was mentioned, presumably by NASA officials. “

  27. Though I am quite surprised that a relatively obscure and unpopular aircraft that went out of production twenty years earlier still merited mention in the dictionary.

  28. That’s AJP’s statement. Much as I love him, I’ll take Daniel Jones as a more authoritative source.

  29. Oh, so will I.

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