I recently picked up a copy of Erich Auerbach‘s Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, a classic I’ve meant to read for decades now. I don’t know if Auerbach is still much read; I suspect his traditional approach, with its deep philological knowledge and casual allusiveness (he wrote it in in Istanbul, where he had fled from the Nazis and where he had to make do with the scanty resources available to him, but he writes as if he had entire libraries at hand), is long out of fashion, but it’s very much to my taste. I was introduced to the book by Susan Cherniack, one of the finest scholars and people it has been my privilege to know (it is not to academia’s credit that she is not still in academia), but in those days I was immersed in Indo-European and had no time for it. Now I have the time (and more knowledge and maturity), and I should be able to get more out of it.

At any rate, my question to the assembled multitudes is: if you are familiar enough with the titular word to have a pronunciation for it, what is it? I’ve always been torn between /maɪ’miːsɪs/ (my-MEE-sis), the traditional anglicized form, and /mɪ’meɪsɪs/ (mih-MAY-sis), the classicizing form I’m guessing most Americans use (if they use the word at all); I presume Auerbach said /’mimesɪs/ (MEE-may-sis), with stress on the first syllable (which is the way my German dictionary has it), and modern Greeks say /’mimisis/ (MEE-mee-sees), but we can rule the latter two out of court as unbearably pretentious on English-speaking lips. (Wikipedia tells me the Russian equivalent of “mimesis” is мимесис or мимезис, with the stress on the first syllable.) I lean toward the second version (mih-MAY-sis), despite my usual preferences, because that’s how Susan said it, but I’m curious about other people’s usage.

Incidentally, the copy I got is not the currently available Deluxe 50th Anniversary Edition (9.2 x 6.2 x 1.3 inches, Shipping Weight: 2 pounds) but the good old Anchor paperback, small enough to fit into my pants pocket. Books have gotten both too expensive and too big.


  1. I’m not sure if I’ve ever spoken that word; reading it I default to my-MEE-sis.

  2. I really liked the way Auerbach worked. I tend to dislike criticism, but mostly the new school since 1960 or so.

  3. Oy, that takes me back. We were assigned Mimesis ([‘mimezis] in SK, [‘mimesis] in CZ) the first semester of the first year by our English lit prof. Like most of my classmates, I found it tedious and useless (which goes for most of our literature classes). Perhaps it’s time I reread it as well.

  4. I say my-MEE-sis.
    Auerbach’s wonderful.

  5. The OED’s pronunciations include /mᵻˈmiːsɪs/, /maɪˈmiːsɪs/, /mᵻˈmeɪsɪs/ (ugh), /ˈmɪməsɪs/ (oy!), and U.S. /məˈmisᵻs/. The American dictionaries agree on /məˈmisᵻs/, with /mᵻˈmisᵻs/ and /maɪˈmisɪs/ as variants; the last is what I say.

  6. /maɪˈmisɪs/ for me too.

  7. Sounds like book word for almost everyone, not just me.
    There are certain rare Chinese characters, mostly personal names, which no one really knows how to pronounce. One is the “Pi” of the first San Guo Wei emperor, Cao Pi/Pei. Another is the “Shu” of the 20th c. author Liang Shu/Sou-ming (“The Last Confucian”).

  8. my-MEE-sis.
    I got my Anchor paperback copy for $1. It’s in perfectly readable condition, despite being as old as I am.

  9. I say something like [‘mimezɪs]. Another Brazilian pronounciation I hear around in college is [mi’mɛzɪs].
    My university is locked in a distortion in the spacetime continuum, inside of which “linguistics” is still seen as a Chomskian vs. Saussurean (I kid you not) debate. The bad part is that I don’t even know what should I read to educate myself in modern linguistics. The good part is that (when looking at the literary side of the Force) things like Auerbach are still pretty much in vogue.

  10. marie-lucie says

    I don’t think I have heard the word either. Is there a correlation with the pronunciation of nemesis, another orally problematic word?
    And what about the adjective mimetic?

  11. When I studied Comp Lit at Yale in the late 80s, I regularly heard this word, and the book’s title, pronounced “my-MEE-sis” or “mih-MEE-sis.”

  12. Ha. My version comes awfully close to rhyming with “grimaces”. Not that I’m particularly definitive.

  13. /mɪˈmiːsɪs/, though like others I don’t recall ever having heard or said it.

  14. But grimaces can be pronounced two ways, Ransom: grimmy-sis or grim aces.
    I say mimmy-sis, to rhyme roughly with nemisis – or nemmy-sis, m-l – and it has the advantage of being close to mimetic (can there be more than one pronunciation of mim-etic?)

  15. For comparison, in contemporary German certain words of Greek origin have two sizes to fit all, a genuwine-sounding one and a Germanified one. You don’t have to worry about the stress when you use the Germanified form. Mimesis is pronounced MIH-may-sihs, but Mimese is mih-MAY-zuh. Similarly, Genesis (GEH-neh-sihs) and Genese (geh-NAY-zuh), Diäresis and Diärese, and many another medical term. The ending -ese is always stressed as AY-zuh.
    The forms ending in -e are more common when something abstract is meant: die Genese des Konflikts, but Genesis ist das erste Buch des Alten Testaments. In words with more than three syllables, when there are two forms their stress does not necessarily differ: Hysteresis (hüs-teh-RAY-sihs) and Hysterese (hüs-teh-RAY-zuh), for instance.

  16. Out of fashion, but never out of date. I’m glad you’re liking it.
    This devotee at least pronounces it mih-‘mee-sis (as in “mimetic”)
    By the way, have you read Ernst Robert Curtius’ European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages? If you like one great German Romance philologist, you might like another, his contemporary and sometimes rival. At least, any book that begins with a list of ten guiding principles in half as many languages seems likely to spark your interest.

  17. I too stress the penultimate syllable in many such English words: mi’mesis, pros’thesis, hyste’resis, dia’resis. However, maire-lucie brought up ‘nemesis, which I stress on the first syllable – as also with ‘protasis. But pe’riphrasis, pa’renthesis. Huh, what a mixed bag.

  18. elessorn: Curtius’ European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages
    That is very often cited by German philosophers and sociologists, at least those I read. “Ten guiding principles” for what ?

  19. GrumblyStu:
    For the work as a whole, both in the scale and nature of his conception, as well as in the method and style of its execution. It’s a collection of ten quotes–Herodotus, Polybius, Petronius, Anonymous, Goethe, Jacob Burkhardt, Gustav Groeber, Hugo Schuchardt, Antoine Meillet, and Jose Ortega y Gasset.
    Certainly it’s hardly usual to start one’s book off with a list of “guiding principles”. I can only say that after reading through the whole thing in its fullness, to me it didn’t seem like grandstanding in the slightest.
    Like Auerbach’s Mimesis, it was researched and written during the war years–when Curtius stayed in Germany, despite having actually published an anti-Nazi pamphlet. And though also the conscious crowning work of his scholastic career, I think he also saw it as his counterargument to the thesis of neo-barbarism then shaking Europe to its roots. I know at least to me it is a work more fundamental than its titular subject might suggest.

  20. Thanx, elessorn. I’ve ordered it here in Cologne, and can pick it up tomorrow.
    I’m not clear why you imagine that starting off a book by stating the “guiding principles” might be seen as grandstanding. Don’t self-help books often start like that ? AA has 12 principles. Of course the ten commandments are cunningly deferred so as not to spoil the intro.

  21. Greek was an option at my school of which I did not avail myself. So I have no opinion on the pronunciation. The usual Scottish pronunciation is, of course, …. eh, beats me.

  22. Dearieme, a safe option when there is a learnèd un-American person at table is to arrange for him/her to be the first to pronounce the word. “Now what was the title of that book by Auerbach, I can’t for the life of me remember just now”. Thereafter, cool as a cucumber, you pronounce it that way too.
    In my case, I think that my pronunciation of the vowels in English loans from Greek such as mimesis (-AY) now tend to get Germanified (although I have always said -AY, never -EE).

  23. elessorn: Curtius’ European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages
    There you go, another local favorite. Our teachers of medieval literature are fond of starting the courses using that one to deconstruct the idea of a “dark age”.

  24. Bought Curtius for $4.12, delivered to my door.
    This tells me that it’s still in use as a textbook. With luck, the student didn’t read it or mark it.

  25. Z. D. Smith says

    I’ve always said /məˈmisᵻs/, and indeed never really imagined that it could be a matter of discussion. That’ll show me.

  26. Thanks, everyone; I never imagined there would be such a range!
    By the way, have you read Ernst Robert Curtius’ European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages? If you like one great German Romance philologist, you might like another, his contemporary and sometimes rival. At least, any book that begins with a list of ten guiding principles in half as many languages seems likely to spark your interest.
    No, I haven’t, and you’ve certainly got me intrigued. I’ll add it to my list. If I’m going to be a fogey, I might as well go all the way.

  27. Marie-lucie, why is the pronunciation of “nemesis” problematic? I’ve only ever heard it pronounced the one way (NEH-mə-sis) and thought it was pretty standard. “Mimetic” rhymes with “pathetic”…

  28. Although etymological vowel lengths only hold limited weight in English, it is νέμεσις and μίμησις.

  29. E.R. Curtius and Auerbach! Two fundamental names in my career (although I’m much more familiar with Cutius than with Auerbach but his work is always cited in my faculty and his chapter on Enchanted Dulcinea is more than famous). Look for Curtius’s book, Hat, you will found there lots of moments of joy (I use it like a book for consults, I never read it from top to toe).
    In Spanish I think there’s no doubt on how to pronounce “Mímesis” (first syllable accentuated like “me” in English, second “me” like “MEmory” and then “sis” like SYStem ¡Please forgive me: I don’t actually know phonetics!)

  30. Auerbach and Curtius! Ah, them was the days. I started out by saying /’mɪmesɪs/ under the influence of my recent Greek courses, but later decided that as the title of a book in English, it was an English word, and now I say /maɪ’misɪs/.

  31. I vacillate between /mɪˈmiːsɪs/ and /maɪˈmiːsɪs/, though my experience with the word is in biochemistry (certain compounds of vanadium, for example, being noted for their insulin-mimesis) rather than philosophy.

  32. Bought Curtius for $4.12, delivered to my door.
    So much for the subdued triumphalism in my announcement that I can order old-fogey stuff which arrives the next day – even at the bookstore in the main train station in Cologne. John has restored my confidence in the American way.
    My copy will cost 19.90 Euros. They charge extra for the German edition, I think.

  33. mollymooly says

    /mɪˈmiːsɪs/, though I will allow /ˈmɪmɪsɪs/. Definitely no /aɪ/ or /eɪ/. I speak with the authority of one who barely knows what the word means, and just files it with “mimicry” in the mental lexicon.

  34. My father assigned this book to me and my brothers in our home school high school class. He pronounced it “my MEE sis.”
    I loved that book. I should go back and read it. It’s been a long time.

  35. One of our cats is called “Nemesis”, or, in full, “Black Nemesis, Bringer of Death”. Pronunciation isn’t a problem; you just shout “Nemmy”.

  36. Charles Perry says

    MMcM puts his finger on the matter. The traditional English way to pronounce Greek words is to transliterate them as the Romans would do and then pronounce the words as if Latin: viz., as English speakers pronounce Latin words. The vowel in the second syllable, being long in Greek (and in Latin), is accented and pronounced /i/.

  37. Right. The Greek word had the accent on the antepenult, but Latin rules moved it to the penult when this was long. And the vowel in the first syllable would be traditionally pronounced /aɪ/ in English because the original i (iota) was also “long” (though original short i or iota could also sometimes be pronounced “long,” eg in “diabetes”).
    The system was never perfectly consistent, but since the “Vatican” (Italian) and classicizing pronunciations began to be used in the teaching of Latin in English-speaking countries, around 1900, there has been utter confusion in the pronunciation of words from the classical languages, except those common enough that everyone has heard the (or a) traditional pronunciation.

  38. Alan: Diabetes gets its long i from vowel lengthening before another vowel.

  39. John: you’re right, that’s a regular change.
    The variation of short and long “y” in hypo- words might be a better example of inconsistency (“hypothesis” vs “hypocrisy” etc)

  40. Yes, but what about the last vowel in “diabetes”? I always think the end of the word should be “-EEZ”, as in “theses”, “feces”, “crises”, but many people make it “-ISS”. I sometimes wonder if that happened by association with all those other medical words ending in “-itis”.

  41. I have indeed spoken the word many times, and I’ve always pronounced it ‘mih-meh-sis, but perhaps that’s because I’m of Greek descent (and bilingual from birth). All the variations mentioned here hurt my ears, in fact! 😉

  42. cuconnacht says

    My US teachers in the 60s and 70s said mih-MEE-sis and so do I.

  43. Oh god, book word indeed. Mimesis as cuconnacht describes above; mimetic as ‘genetic’ but with first vowel as first ‘i’ in ‘mini’. Worried now.
    Also a bit alarmed by pe’riphrasis, Stu, can’t even get my brain around that! Your tongue doesn’t get tied in knots?

  44. Should’ve hit the dictionary before I spoke!

  45. /’mi.me.zɪs/, standard Portuguese pronunciation (but it sounds like that in my mind even when reading English) (which is also the case for most Latin/Greek uncommon bookwords). We had classes about it in college (both Auerbach, and the concept of mimesis in general), & everybody pronounced it that way.

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