MIME OR MEEM?

I recently mentioned mimes (probably, I fear, in a disparaging way) and my wife said “Isn’t that supposed to be /mimz/ [i.e., as if written meems]?” I was astonished and said I’d never heard or imagined such a pronunciation, and of course ran to research it. Daniel Jones’s Pronouncing Dictionary, my guide to Received Pronunciation, has only /maym/ (i.e., the usual pronunciation, the way it looks), but Merriam-Webster has “\ˈmīm also ˈmēm\.” So I turn to you, Varied Reader: are you familiar with this frenchified “meem” pronunciation? Do you use it yourself?

Comments

  1. Nope. Like you, I’ve never heard or imagined such a thing.

  2. not me

  3. rootlesscosmo says:

    When Marcel Marceau first performed as his character Bip in the US–1956 or thereabouts–his art, a novelty to New York theatergoers, was also a culture-snob hit, Frenchness being then more or less a guarantee of sophistication. This rubbed Wolcott Gibbs the wrong way; he titled his New Yorker review “Beep the Meem.”

  4. Maybe it’s a meme?

  5. i’ve heard the pronunciation, but only because of an episode of ‘cheers’ in which diane chambers insists on the pronunciation. to my ear it was always sullied by that impression of such affectation.

  6. Robe de chambre says:

    No, I’ve never heard this pronunciation, except in my native French :)

  7. marie-lucie says:

    Moi non plus.

  8. An altogether unsimely foe pah.

  9. When you compare mimicry or mimics to pantomime, you can see what had happened. Quite often orthography leads orthoepy (phonetics), especially with words which acquired established pronunciation – myme instead of meem – in the era before radio/TV. Compare missile: miss-EEL vs miss-AIL.
    I think that’s what’d happened here. In Russian both mime (мим) and pantomime (пантомима) are pronounced with -ee- (French/Latin/Greek infulence).
    Another consideration: in American and British linguistics, do you have a notion of variability of literary/linigusitic norm? My most exciting discovery in studying Russian at university level was the idea of вариантность литературной нормы (variability of literary norm) meaning that there could be two or more acceptable (correct) ways of writing/ saying the same word or constructing a phrase. One example is the gender of coffee. Educated classes have insisted that it should be masculine, but in common usage ending -e is strongly associated with neuter. So colloquial pressure slowly developed alternative gender attribution – neuter. It is now acceptable and, perhaps, more common than masculine.
    Shouldn’t we look at myme and meem in the same way?

  10. My first wife’s mother always said ‘meem’. It used to annoy me quite a lot. She had had a quite bossy French roommate in college.

  11. I thought it was pronounced Arbuthnot.

  12. Does miming have any etymological connection with mumming?
    By the way I’ve never heard the meem pronunciation in Britian.

  13. Does miming have any etymological connection with mumming?
    By the way I’ve never heard the meem pronunciation in Britian.

  14. Interesting. I wonder if rootlesscosmo’s Marcel Marceau story indicates the source of the “meem” pronunciation? The Wolcott Gibbs title certainly suggests it was known in NYC haute circles at the time.

  15. In Russian both mime (мим) and pantomime (пантомима) are pronounced with -ee-
    Well, naturally, since you got it from French and didn’t have a Great Vowel Shift to screw up your pronunciation.
    in American and British linguistics, do you have a notion of variability of literary/linigusitic norm?
    Well, that’s sort of what I’m trying to inculcate here at LH, but I think you may be overestimating the extent to which it has conquered the Russian public. From what I understand, there is still a great deal of prescriptivist prejudice regarding “correct” Russian usage.

  16. Rhymes: mimes, limes.
    Tony Montanaro, an American mime who performed and taught in the community where I grew up, pronounced it “mīm.” (I’m not just relying on memory: there’s proof on YouTube!)

  17. Apparently in the San Francisco Mime Troupe it was “meem” from the group’s founding in 1959 up to about 1970, when it shifted to “mime”.

  18. not to derail the thread, but meem is boob in my language, so everytime i see i-meem i recall my friends joking about milking it for the songs
    another pronounciation of the word is mööm, so these words are like more a baby language, not slang
    the not colloqial word is khökhnii bulchirxai- mammary gland

  19. colloquial

  20. read, thanks for that. During my time in Mongolia I never found myself in a situation where I could naturally elicit the word for “boob” from a native speaker.

  21. This ballet glossary says “mime” is pronounced à la française in that milieu.

  22. any nursing mother could say that to you when describing her baby’s main activity :)
    it is pronounced not like the French word but as meh-m
    thanks to the thread, i’ve learned how to pronounce maim, i thought it sounds like mime and didn’t like for that reason the English pronounciation of the word, i was wrong

  23. Charles Perry says:

    The San Francisco Mime Troupe insisted on meem on the ground that they weren’t doing pantomime, they were doing commedia dell’ arte, a (non-mute) school of drama featuring exaggerated gestures. I always thought that bizarre. Here they were doing an Italian-inspired sort of performance but they demanded a French pronunciation.
    Anyway, at least in San Francisco this seemed to get the ball rolling for meem as the snob pronunciation.

  24. That explains a lot. My former mother-in-law lived in San Francisco.

  25. That explains a lot. My former mother-in-law lived in San Francisco.

  26. michael farris says:

    Somewhat related?
    This last June during the oral section of the English (second language) exams where I work, the students (native Polish speakers) had to do a presentation on a topic related to their studies.
    One of them (who was also learning Japanese) chose to do a presentation related to geishas. Imagine my surprise when she kept pronouncing it ‘geesha’ (more or less ['giSa]). In the question and answer time I asked where she got that pronunciation and found out another American (visiting teaching assistant) had suggested it.
    Later, looking it up, I found ‘geesha’ as an alternate pronunciation. Has anyone else come across this?

  27. It seems to me, after reading the comments, that mEEm is argot of those in the know, and mYme is just for general usage.
    overestimating the extent to which it (variability) has conquered the Russian public:
    oh no, variability of norm can be seen as a kind of post-graduate level acceptance of the inability of academics to impose the Norm on a living language. On the ‘teachers college’ (and among some academics) there have always been and will be attepmts to guide a language, to make pronouncements on what is ‘correct’ and what is not. Dahl (Даль) himself waged a campaign to rid Russian of barbaric foreign imports. He unsuccessfully insisted on мокроступы instead of galoshi.
    There are a few success stories though. Simplified Chinese, Kanji minimum in Japan and bolsheviks drive for mass literacy in 1920s to name a few. In Russia, the 1918 language reform coincided with the massive campaign to make the country literate. We got rid of hard marks at the end of every word ending in a consonant and lost a few obscure letters in the alphabet, the language became more democratic. But we also blurred the difference between World and Peace – Mир and Miр. Tolstoy’s War and Peace became ambiguous (it could be interpreted as World and Peace since after the reform)…
    PS: Sorry, do I have to use html for quotes+italics? CTRL+i or Command+i doesn’t seem to work here.

  28. marie-lucie says:

    Mир and Miр.
    Can you explain what the difference was in pronunciation?

  29. I’ve only ever heard /mimz/, actually. If my age and peer group are of interest at all it’s mostly 19-25 year old Torontonians.

  30. must be a Peter ‘cellars’ derivative.

  31. marie-lucie says:

    “Mime” also works as a verb. If you use [mim], how do you pronounce “miming”?

  32. I don’t suppose anyone says “pantomeem”?

  33. Charles Perry says:

    Maybe Fraser Crane does.

  34. I found ‘geesha’ as an alternate pronunciation
    From my Wobegon/midwest perspective, I have never heard any other pronunciation (likewise with mīm) but it’s not the sort of thing that comes up very often in polite conversation.

  35. Mир and Miр. – Marie-Lucie,
    There is no difference in pronunciation. This was the reason for change. There is a dispute as to what Tolstoy himself wanted in the title Peace (Мир) or World (Miр). In French he refered to the novel as La guerre et la paix, but wrote Mip (world) on the proofs of one of the early editions.

  36. michael farris says:

    I’d heard jokes in Poland around the (apocryhpal) statement “SSSR hochet tol’ko mir” (The USSR only wants peace/the world) (which depends on pronouncing the letter R as ‘ir’ which I don’t know if it is in Russian).
    As a much smaller country, Poland has to set its sights lower and peace in Polish is the same as ‘room’ (in a building) – pokój.
    Finally is ‘i’ making a comeback in modern Russian? I have a Russian language channel in my cabel lineup and a lot of the ads (which I don’t think it carries anymore) used to have words with i. At the time I assumed they were in Ukrainian since I’m very weak in Eastern Slavic and the presence or absence of i is the quickest way for me to distinguish between written Russian and Ukrainian (though I didn’t understand why there would be Ukrainian ads on Russian tv)

  37. peace in Polish is the same as ‘room’
    I hope they didn’t translate lebensraum as ‘a peaceful life’.

  38. peace in Polish is the same as ‘room’
    I hope they didn’t translate lebensraum as ‘a peaceful life’.

  39. Well, I think this is the first thread in which I’ve seen marie-lucie admit to being nonplussed.

  40. John Emerson says:

    Yes, m-l is usually entirely plussed.
    “Peace” in pinyin Mandarin is “heping”, in Wade-Giles it’s “ho p’ing”, and there’s a road in Taiwan labelled (in English) “Hoping Road”.

  41. “Hoping Road”
    Providence, RI, has a streets named Hope, Benefit, Benevolent, Friendship, etc. Presumably, like the name of the city, these reflect something about the religious values of its founders. But (I swear I’m not making this up) Friendship Street has been one-way for some time now.)

  42. There is a dispute as to what Tolstoy himself wanted in the title Peace (Мир) or World (Miр).
    A very silly dispute, that started on a TV show a few years ago. There’s no question whatever that Tolstoy wrote and intended Peace (Мир), but people love a controversy, no matter how trumped-up.

  43. marie-lucie says:

    Stuart: I think this is the first thread in which I’ve seen marie-lucie admit to being nonplussed.
    This is unfair: I may post more answers than questions, but I do post questions, and if someone asks me a question that I can’t answer, I say so.

  44. The large number of Russian newspaper articles recently decrying the dumbing down of Russian and using that exact example – кофе/kofe now being also neuter! ZOMG! How illiterate and ungrammatical! – indicates that Russians are just as hung up as English speakers on such things…

  45. J.W. Brewer says:

    Googling finds lots of English-language hits for “war and piece.” I assume at least some of these reflect deliberate wordplay rather than unintentional misspelling, but I’m not going to hazard a guess as to the percentages.

  46. Marie-lucie, I love making multi-ligual wordplay whenever any opportunity present itself and your “moi non plus” was just such an opportunity. It was probably a little mean of me since I was approximately 105.783% certain you would miss it, but it was too tempting to pass up.

  47. Finally is ‘i’ making a comeback in modern Russian?
    No, I don’t think so – if they do use it it is probably playing on nostalgia. Commersant newspaper uses Ъ hard mark, long defunct at the end of all words endning with a consonant, as their brand sign: КоммерсантЪ.

  48. peace in Polish is the same as ‘room’ (in a building) – pokój
    But it is in Russian too: покой – peace as in calm, and покой – room as in quarters. The synonymic link being покоиться – to rest in peace. Except the accent is different: in Polish it is always penultimate, but in Russian it falls on the last syllable.

  49. AJP:
    they didn’t translate lebensraum as ‘a peaceful life’
    Funny you should mention this. In War and Peace, Prince Andrey delivers a diatribe to Pierre about two Austrian officers discussing how the war with Napoleon should be im raum verlegen – moved into another dimension. Prince Andrey thought it was an insult to his patriotic feelings.

  50. the Ridger:
    Russian newspaper articles recently decrying the dumbing down of Russian and using that exact example – кофе/kofe
    yes, I followed that too. Amazing that it should come thirty years after our professor, Leo Tolstoy’s great grandson Ilya Vladimirovich, was telling us, students, that it was okay to treat coffee as neuter – in colloquial speech.

  51. marie-lucie says:

    Stuart: my comment “moi non plus” (= “me neither”) was no. 7, your little joke was no. 36 (if I counted correctly). How was I to remember that I had written such an innocuous and ordinary sentence? Next time, don’t wait so long. Also, remember, I am a linguist, so I tend to take things literally, I am not terribly sensitive to literary effects, or able to create them myself.

  52. I was nonplussed too :)

  53. Michael Farris says:

    “But it is in Russian too: покой – peace as in calm, and покой – room as in quarters”
    In Polish that would be spokój (peace and quiet) as opposed to pokój (absence of war).
    Cognates across Slavic languages are lots of fun.

  54. In Polish that would be spokój (peace and quiet)
    …and in Russian too: спокойно as quiet, calm in manner. But the noun takes a suffix: спокойствие.

  55. In War and Peace, Prince Andrey delivers a diatribe to Pierre about two Austrian officers discussing how the war with Napoleon should be im raum verlegen – moved into another dimension. Prince Andrey thought it was an insult to his patriotic feelings.
    Very good.

  56. In War and Peace, Prince Andrey delivers a diatribe to Pierre about two Austrian officers discussing how the war with Napoleon should be im raum verlegen – moved into another dimension. Prince Andrey thought it was an insult to his patriotic feelings.
    Very good.

  57. Nope ditto. Native UK English speaker, 53: I’ve never heard anyone, ever, pronounce it “meem”, and I’d think them a pretentious twit if I ever did. The OED has no such pronunciation listed.

  58. Yes, it’s pretty clearly American twittery, if twittery it be.

  59. I don’t mean to leave the impression that my former mother-in-law was a pretentious twit. She actually had a great sense of humour. She never raised any objection to either of her daughters’ marriages.

  60. I don’t mean to leave the impression that my former mother-in-law was a pretentious twit. She actually had a great sense of humour. She never raised any objection to either of her daughters’ marriages.

  61. When she came to London* she saw a Giant Poodle driving a Land Rover.
    *(right-hand drive.)

  62. When she came to London* she saw a Giant Poodle driving a Land Rover.
    *(right-hand drive.)

  63. The story of the three Russian spellings of /i/ is that they were introduced into the Cyrillic alphabet in mindless imitation of Greek, in which all of ι (iota), η (eta), and υ (upsilon) when used by themselves, not in digraphs, were already pronounced /i/. They remain in Greek in their etymological positions to this day.
    As things shook out in Russian, the і was used before vowels, the ѵ (itzhitsa) in Greek words that had υ (analogous to the use of y instead of i in such Greek words in the West), and the и (izhe, from η) for all other purposes. A post-revolutionary reform abolished i in favor of и in all cases. Oddly, ѵ was never formally abolished; it just gradually ceased to be used in the two centuries before the reform.
    The old distinction between Мир vs. Miр is artificial, sort of like Spanish ‘tea’ vs. te ‘thee’; two words are kept separate in the orthography although they sound alike, and by the usual orthographic rules would be spelled alike. This is about the only minimal pair that went south when i was abolished.
    Similarly, the reason that у (u) and ю (yu) look so different is that the former is an abbreviation for ου (/u/ in Greek), and the latter is a different abbreviation for a non-Greek ιου ligature.

  64. marie-lucie says:

    Very interesting, JC. I suppose that the shape of Russian и is based on that of Greek η.
    Spanish ‘tea’ vs. te ‘thee’: in isolation, they do sound the same, but when used in a sentence ‘tea’ is always stressed and ‘thee’ unstressed, . Using the accent mark just makes recognition, and therefor reading, easier.

  65. John Cowsn:
    in Russian, the і was used before vowels,
    I think you are refering to Peter the Great’s reform, not the 1918′s. Peter decreed that i should have two dots on top (like ё) before vowels and one before consonants (as in Mip).
    Izhitsa (ν) was abolished by Peter, but then reinstated by Anna Ioanovna, I think.
    I suspect much of the confusion was due to resistance by the church – Peter reduced them to the level of just another government department. Church uses not Russian, but Church-Slavonic language/alphabet. One of the few words written with izhitsa was Sinod.
    But still ν (izhitsa) survived well into 1950-60s because it was used in numbering series of various products, steam engines for example.

  66. Marie-Lucie: и is rather based on Η, being basically a quick way of writing the latter. Originally Cyrillic lowercase letters were just small versions of the capitals. In Peter the Great’s reform, some differentiation took place, usually following Latin models: thus А/а are now directly from Latin, whereas in old style both had the same shape, with the crossbar running from the foot of the left leg to midway up the right leg: see here (unfortunately quite small).
    Sashura: I’m following Wikipedia here: see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Decimal_I_(Cyrillic) (so called because it represented 10 in the old Russian numbering system, whereas и represented 8). Orthography changed between Peter’s day and 1918 too, just more slowly.

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