I just saw Linda Winer interview Rosemary Harris, who knew Laurence Olivier and insisted that he pronounced his name in the traditional anglicized fashion (“oh-LIHV-ee-er,” with the ending as in “heavier”) and disliked the “oh-LIHV-ee-ay” pronunciation that has become universal (“It’s not French!”), though he learned to accept it. (The same is true of the jazz drummer Paul Motian, who used to insist on pronouncing his Armenian name “MOW-tee-an” but finally gave in to the ubiquitous “MOW-shun.”) Since I can’t find any mention of this on the internet, and all my reference books give the French-style version, I thought I’d better post it here so there will be some record of the fact.


  1. I know of a CEO of an American company who doesn’t let anyone forget he is Italian (“buon giorno a tutti!”) but his team all pronounce the gli in his name with a hard /g/, though a more Italian pronunciation should – I imagine – roll easier off even an anglo-monoglot tongue. Makes me scratch my head.

  2. PlasticPaddy says

    Aungier St. = /ˈe:nʤəɹ/
    D’Olier St. = /dəˈliəɹ/ (alternatively second vowel can be long , i.e., i:, and the pronunciation with short vowel can have 1st syllable stress)


  3. David Marjanović says

    Aungier St. = /ˈe:nʤəɹ/

    What – did the au get interpreted as an Irish ao somehow?

  4. David Eddyshaw says

    Well, there’s Middle English daunger “danger”, and straunge; to say nothing of gauge.

    Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
    And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,


  5. David Marjanović says

    Ah, yes, that makes a lot more sense.

  6. “oh-LIHV-ee-ay” pronunciation that has become universal

    Has it? Universal where? I think I’ve never heard that pronunciation.

    Olivier rhymes with theatre.

  7. Universal where? I think I’ve never heard that pronunciation.

    In the US, certainly; I’ve never heard any other.

  8. A withering look from Maggie Smith would soon put a stop to that sort of nonsense, surely!

  9. David Marjanović says

    Olivier rhymes with theatre.

    Do you mean Olivier has merged into Oliver?

  10. I’m stretching to make the point: I mean the final syllable rhymes.

    Olivier has 4 syllables for me.

  11. I’ve listened to 30-some UK examples of “Olivier” on YouGlish (most of which refer to Laurence or to the award or theater named after him), and all use the “ee-ay” pronunciation.

  12. Yeah, I only ever hear the “ee-ay” pronunciation, so I was delighted to have AntC confirm the existence of the one I posted about.

  13. Yes, it is surprising if AntC has never heard the “ay” pronunciation. And [citation needed] for Maggie Smith: consider this clip where the interviewer asks her “Tell me about Larry Oliv-ee-ay”. What withering look?

    I looked around for other sources, but Olivier doesn’t seem to have ever shared this gripe with anybody besides Rosemary Harris. He wrote an autobiography, there are multiple biographies, his sister wrote a biography (unpublished, but available to other biographers), and none of them say anything about his name being pronounced differently when he was growing up than when he was famous, or about his having any objections to it. I wonder, was there some leg-pulling going on? Sir Laurence was known as a raconteur and not above a little enhancement of the truth for the sake of a story. It *is*, of course, originally a French name, as he well knew, since his father took an interest in his Huguenot ancestors and gave all three children names with French spellings.

    So I’m seeing an awful lot of absences exactly where you’d expect evidence, against one memory at a distance of several decades. There’s also some positive evidence: Joan Fontaine (his co-star in Rebecca) uses the “ay” pronunciation (at about 1:39); you can also find Richard Burton and Brian Cox, who also worked with him, saying it likewise. Now, any of these sources could be doubted; maybe all the actors sharing memories in “Old Vic Voices – working with Laurence Olivier” were too polite to object to “Oliv-ee-ay” (one uses it himself, though most just say “Larry”), or maybe nobody except Harris ever knew him well enough. But for an extremely famous and recent celebrity, with a very large number of sources, I don’t think it’s stupid or irrational to go with the large majority.

  14. It’s not a question of what to “go with”; obviously everybody has called him “o-liv-ee-ay” for many years and it would be obnoxious pedantry to insist on the other. My point was simply that he originally used “o-liv-ee-er,” and I thought that was interesting.

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