Sunday’s Safire column on the word vegan, in among the labored puns and vaguely relevant references, actually gives me a bit of useful information. I’d always wondered how to pronounce the word, having heard VAY-gan and VEE-gan more or less equally; now I know how the creator of the word, Donald Watson, intends it to be said. Safire ends his piece:

My problem with vegan, now affirmatively used as self-description by roughly two million Americans, is its pronunciation. Does the first syllable sound like the vedge in vegetable, with the soft g? Or is it pronounced like the name sci-fi writers have given the blue-skinned aliens from far-off Vega: VEE-gans or VAY-gans?
For this we turn to the word’s coiner: ”The pronunciation is VEE-gan,” Watson told Vegetarians in Paradise, a Los Angeles-based Web site, last year, ”not vay-gan, veggan or veejan.” He chooses the ee sound followed by a hard g. That’s decisive but not definitive; some lexicographers differ, and pronunciation will ultimately be determined by the majority of users.
I’ll go along with the coiner’s pronunciation of VEE-gan. He’s a charmingly crotchety geezer who began as a vegetarian. ”When my older brother and younger sister joined me as vegetarians, nonsmokers, teetotalers and conscientious objectors,” Watson says, ”my mother said she felt like a hen that had hatched a clutch of duck eggs.” He obviously inherited her feel for language. I’m a carnivore myself — an animal that delights in eating other animals — but won’t treat this guy like a fad-diet freak: Watson has a major coinage under his belt, and he’s a spry 94.

I even (miracle of miracles) agree with his conclusion: I wouldn’t follow the creator’s preferred usage if English speakers had settled on another one, but since they haven’t, it pleases me to go along with the crotchety geezer (Watson, that is, not Safire).


  1. Richard Hershberger says:

    For whatever it is worth, I have never heard the word pronounced any way other than VEE-gan. I have enough friends who are vegetarians that I suspect I picked the pronunciation up from them, which suggests that this is the accepted pronunciation within that community.

  2. I’ve only ever heard “VEEgan” too.

  3. As regards “accaptance in the community”, I would agree: the only time I have ever heard “VAY-Gun”, “VEE-GAN” and the like, it is from a carnivore. My father, for example, who, like Safire, “delights” in meat-eating, prounounces it “VEE-GANN!”– stress on BOTH syllables, second syllable half-shouting: “Please, waiter, my son is a VEE- GANN!” (Note that he also uses an article; most people I know “in the community” would say “I’m vegan”.)

  4. I’m a “strict vegetarian,” but my brother refers to me as a vegan, “VEE-gan.” Same thing with regards to diet, but many vegans think that my failure to kneel at the animal-rights altar makes me a heretic and unworthy of the name.

  5. I thought “carnivore” meant eating meat exclusively. This is a surprisingly healthy option for humans — so long as they eat fat with the meat, and are physically active — but not one undertaken by most people who wish to distinguish themselves from vegetarians. Aren’t those folks really “omnivores”?
    On the other hand, it’s not like any word is the direct opposite of “vegetarian”. The situation would only be so clean-cut if vegetarians called themselves “herbivores”, which they do not. Also, every time my neighbor’s cat, a carnivore, goes outside, the first thing it does is munch on some grass.

  6. I’ve almost exclusively heard VEE-gan (with the “a” a schwa or somewhere in between an “a” and a schwa). I’ve only heard VAY-gan once, during the brief time I ate a vegan diet about 15 years ago, and that person was unable to pick up my use of VEE-gan; when I explained what I meant, that is when he insisted it was VAY-gan.
    But I can’t remember whether he was vegan.
    Could this be a regional pronunciation issue? I’m West coast, although I first said this word from reading it, not hearing it.

  7. Come to think of it, I was invited to a vegan potluck recently, and the host said “VEE-gan” not “VAY-gan.”

  8. OK, it sounds like VEE-gan is the accepted pronunciation in the vegan community; since I don’t hang out with any vegans, I have only been exposed to the varying outsider versions.
    pierre: Since there are very few people who eat meat exclusively, I think the word has become in practice the opposite of “vegetarian” — I’ve had occasion to identify myself that way, and no one’s ever misunderstood. Etymology is not destiny.

  9. Perhaps carnophile could be adopted as “the opposite of vegan,” emphasizing the delight (and carnality) of meat-eating. After all, carnivore, omnivore, and herbivore have more to do with dentition and the shape and length of the digestive tract than they do with typical eating habits. All human beings are omnivores, biologically, regardless of what they eat. And all cows are herbivores, even when they’re fed a diet of, well, other cows.
    Carnophile gives us options like the adjective carnophilous, the noun carnophilia and the noun/adjective pair carnophiliac.
    (I would suppose that if carnophiles embrace the term, they could them derisively refer to vegans and vegetarians as “carnophobes.”)
    We still need a word for the great majority of people, who simply eat whatever is widely accepted and available in their community. Perhaps we could call them appetypical.

  10. vegan has been borrowed into several other languages as well. Spanish and Italian have vegano, German Veganer. So far as I know, these follow the normal pronunciation rules of those languages.
    In French (at least in Canada), it’s vegetalien as opposed to just vegetarien.
    I have seen a web site from Brazil that uses vegan as an adjective without any inflection. I don’t know whether that was just a fluke. Perhaps the author pronounced it in a non-Portuguese way, too. When I needed to get fed there, I said vegetariano estrito, but that was more than a decade ago.

  11. VAY-gans are aliens from the planet Vega. VEE-gans are vegetarians. Had no idea there was any controversy about the issue at all, but what fun turns out to ensue when there is!

  12. So when aliens from Vega visit, will they turn out to be vegans as well as Vegans?

  13. That would make them vague ones indeed, LH.

  14. My only vegan friend pronounces it vedge’n, like the first syllable of vegetable with an n tacked on.

  15. And HP — what a lovely idea for a word! I will endeavor to use it.

  16. “Carnophile” is unnecessarily hybridized, combining Greek and Latin roots. Maybe “sarcophile” would be better.
    For ant-eating, you can say “formicivorous” or “myrmecophagous”, but don’t take half of one and half of the other. Same with lignivorous/xylophagous, herbivorous/phytophagous, and of course carnivorous/sarcophagous.
    And I’m another who’s only ever heard “VEE-g’n”.

  17. Concerning hybrids, I agree entirely, KCinDC.
    For wood-eating one could also have “hylophagous”; and for flesh-eating, “creophagous”. And “omophagous” for raw-food-eating (especially raw-flesh-eating). “Zoophagous” might do for flesh-eating too, since all animals are of flesh, and all flesh is of animals. Closely related to “myrmecophagy” would be “termitophagy”. ‘Tis pity ’tis a hybrid.

  18. In my experience there is no absolute uniformity among astronomers on the prononciation of the ‘e’ in ‘Vega’ (or the astronomical ‘Vegan’), by the way.

  19. The other day, my Spanish-speaking husband mentioned something about McDonald’s having a “begi-burger.” He meant a veggie burger. He cracked me up.

  20. late, as usual – I was just going to suggest to as k proper authority, i.e. Songdog, for a correct astronomic[al?] prononciation of Vega.
    (In Russian, f.ex, it rhymes with Megan)
    Toby, may be he meant “beggar-burger”?

  21. I never knew hybrid words were an issue for some people. Sarcophile evokes a bit too much of necrophile for my comfort. After all, you can find a sarcophagus in a necropolis, but there’s not much carnality at a necropsy.
    Hmmm… carnamator? That doesn’t sound right. Maybe I could “romance” it up a bit: carnamadour. Closer, but I’d think one could do better.
    (Aside: Did you know that carnival comes from carnelevare, “the removal of flesh”? I just learned that.)

  22. As an antonym of vegan, why not the OE meat-eater? (Flesh-eater seems a bit vampiric.) The archaic sense of meat (= food in general) makes the term pleasingly redundant, and I don’t think it suggests a plant-free diet as carnivore does.

  23. For OE, I think the relevant term might be meatlustman, not merely meat-eater. A true antonym for vegan needs to capture not merely the fact of eating meat, or the unmindful consumption of meat in societies where it is common, but the pleasure of eating meat as meat. A term that conveys a sense of triumph over the animals. A term that embraces not merely the finished food product, but the violent death that preceded it.
    Actually, reflecting back on my original post, I wonder whether the portmanteau appetypical might not be a more useful coinage in the long run.

  24. Except people would probably take you to be saying “meatless-man” which is not what you meant at all.

  25. I’m vegan, and every vegan I know say vee-gan. Only friends and family that I know who eat meat say vay-gen, no matter how many times I correct them.

  26. Hi I’m a vegan and my best-friend absolutely insists that I pronounce it “Vedgen” like “vegetable”. I still say “VEE-gun”. It is refreshing to see that the majority of you agrees with me! However, where in my region most people say “VAY-gun” it seems. (Midwest; kansas)

  27. Very interesting — it does seem that vegans say VEE-gun and non-vegans say VAY-gun (or, like your irritating friend, VEJ-un, which I’ve never heard). A diet-based dialect!

  28. By the way, you should tell your friend that by those rules, Christmas should be pronounced with a long i, just like Christ.

Speak Your Mind