Reader Jeff sent me an e-mail to this effect:

I recently wrote the word “rigamarole” on my computer, only to have the machine change it to “rigmarole”. Aghast, I checked, and found the latter is definitely a possible choice. On the other hand, I don’t think I have ever heard it without the a between g and m.

Do we have any info on how this is distributed?

An excellent question! I responded:

Yeah, the official spelling is rigmarole but I think especially in the US an extra syllable gets inserted. It’s had lots of variants; the OED lists:

Forms: 17 riggmonrowle, 17 rig-me-role, 17 rig me roll, 17 rig mi rol, 17 rig-my-role, 17 rig-my-roll, 17– rigmarol, 17– rigmarole, 18 rigmarowl (Irish English (north.)), 18– rigmaroll, 18– rigmorale, 19– rigamarole.

What’s particularly interesting is its etymology; it’s from Ragman roll “The roll used in the game of Ragman.”

The spelling rigamarole is given as an alternative in US dictionaries (e.g., AHD), but I’m pretty sure the associated pronunciation with four syllables is far more common in the US; I certainly say it that way, and so does my wife (I just asked). How do you say it (if you do), and what variety of English do you speak?


  1. Definitively tetrasyllabic for me. (standard-prestige form of AmEng, with some Middle-Atlantic regionalisms in phonology)

  2. Lucy Kemnitzer says

    Four syllables. I’m from California, so my dialect is a patchwork of Western with some Southernisms and other flotsam.

    But what I want to know is what is this game of Ragman and what is the roll used in it? Googling it came up with nothing that answered.

  3. Will Fitzgerald says

    Four syllables (Michigan).

  4. @Lucy Three theories of the origin here.

    1) messy scroll in 1292 and/or 1296 collecting the names of Scots nobles during Edward I’s progresses through Scotland
    2) after the name of a tax collector whose records on parchment were messy
    3) a game involving messy parchment, scroll, string and wax.

    So the common thread is messy parchment. Is it true? Who knows.

    (I say it with 4 syllables too).

  5. I say it with four syllables. I grew up in Michigan.

  6. Three syllables, as spelled.

  7. Not a word I use much. I think I usually say it with three syllables (that’s definitely a possible pronunciation with me) but the four-syllable version also sounds unremarkable to me. I grew up in California.

  8. Four syllables. Grew up in southern California.

  9. Australian. Three syllables. Have never heard the four-syllable version.

  10. Three syllables in my husband’s Dublin English and my Ulster English, but he thinks his grandparents might have used four. However, they were inveterate adders of syllables in the old Dublin style – “pet-er-dhill” for petrol etc.

  11. Never heard anything but 3 syllable version – British (London then Scotland).


  12. Same as Bathrobe.

  13. Canadian English: 4 syllables, and as surprised as your correspondent to see the spelling ‘rigmarole’.

  14. Four syllables. Massachusetts. Never would have imagined three was a possibility.

  15. Seems like it’s a US thing, then.

    Three syllables, as spelled.

    *blows whistle* False logic! It’s also spelled with four; do you change your pronunciation according to the spelling of the text you’re reading?

  16. British, London.never heard the four syllable version. Sounds like a Homer Simpson coinage (“saxamaphone, viomolin, “)

  17. Rigamarole, from another Michigander, ethnic Canadian. Three syllables sounds choked to me.

  18. Three syllables, but that could well be a spelling pronunciation. Four syllables sounds Irish and old-fashioned to me, I’m a little surprised to see it so widespread over there in the US.

  19. Stephen C. Carlson says

    Four syllables. Northern Virginia.

  20. Four as well, Central Massachusetts.

    @AB: Don’t forget obomaboe and tubamaba.

  21. Like Ken, I had never imagined that there was a three syllable version. It helps that it’s a word that I seldom see written.

  22. Four syllables. Chicago, lower Michigan.

  23. False logic!

    Chop-logic. I concede that publicly can also be spelled publically, which is the regular derivation, but I neither spell it that way nor pronounce it that way, and if I saw it when reading aloud, I’d read it with three syllables. And so with rigmarole.

  24. Ri-g-ma-role. The g is syllabic. L2, California.

  25. Well, reduction of written syllables feels to me like a better-founded process than insertion of them. For me -ically is always disyllabic, so the choice of publicly or publically wouldn’t have any bearing on how I said it; but if I were reading aloud a text that used rigmarole, I’d say it with three syllables despite my native preference for four.

  26. Augustus Maria von und zu Blattburg says

    Strickly three. Never heard four. British RPish speaker.

  27. Three syllables, originally British. It’s quite possible I have never had cause to say the word out loud during my 30+ years in the US.

  28. Oddly, while Google’s Ngram Viewer shows a nearly unanimous preference for rigmarole in British texts, it shows an only somewhat less strong preference for the same in American texts. If the Americans here are representative, then there’d appear to be a gulf between spoken and written usage on this point.

  29. There is. I’m used to seeing it written rigmarole and saying rigamarole.

  30. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    Three syllables, as spelled (by me!). South-West England.

  31. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    British RPish speaker

    Only ish? I’m disappointed. But I’ve long feared that we RP speakers are dying out, when not even the younger members of the Royal Family still speak RP.

  32. Four syllables, mixed AmE.

    Is there any evidence for those etymologies which would require adding a syllable?

  33. Augustus Maria von und zu Blattburg says

    Luckily what’s left of my pronunciation is now fixed in the amber of Abroadian exile. The last RP speaker will one day stagger out of a Burmese forest, I shouldn’t wonder.

  34. David Marjanović says

    do you change your pronunciation according to the spelling of the text you’re reading?

    Only in English can this question even be asked 😉

    Ri-g-ma-role. The g is syllabic.

    OK, now, that blows my mind. Syllabic voiced plosives don’t seem to be attested anywhere (no doubt Nuxalk would gladly have them, but as it happens all its obstruents are voiceless, even the syllabic ones).

    But I’ve long feared that we RP speakers are dying out, when not even the younger members of the Royal Family still speak RP.

    Worse: the younger members of the Royal Family are more popular than such noted RP speakers as Tony mblAAA or David Cameron.

  35. OK, now, that blows my mind. Syllabic voiced plosives don’t seem to be attested anywhere.
    Well, in this case it’s a matter of phonetic, not phonological interpretation. It’s not syllabic in the sense of potentially bearing stress. It’s syllabic in the sense of not having a discernable vowel between the /g/ and /m/. The timing of the rigm- is the same as when I say rhythm.
    Perhaps some would transcribe it as [gǝ̆] for the sake of normalcy, but I usually just don’t have that vowel there.

  36. Syllabic voiced plosives don’t seem to be attested anywhere.

    Pic-a-nic baskets?

  37. @Y: I think that would make the /m/ syllabic, rather than the /g/ or /ð/.

  38. To be more specific, when my lips close for the /m/, the tongue dorsum is still near the velum; in the spectrogram, the velar F2-F3 pinch persists until after the start of the voicing bar of the /m/.

    (Apologies for advertising private anatomical details.)

  39. Lazar: the m is the onset of /ma/. In that sense it’s different than rhythm.

  40. US (Massachusetts). Four syllables sounds right, but three does not sound wrong. “Rigmarole” looks right, but “rigamarole” does not look wrong.

  41. Speaking of missing or added syllables, how can Merriam-Webster not recognize two-syllable “pabulum”? Hell, I’d have expected them to have “pablum” as at least an alternative written form at this point. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone pronounce it with three syllables.

  42. Well, it does have a small separate entry for pablum – but yeah, I’m more familiar with that than with the trisyllabic form. It seems that a brand of Canadian baby food from the 1930s called Pablum may have popularized it or even originated it; Ngrams shows it popping into existence at that time and being mostly confined to the American corpus.

  43. Lazar, I thought I checked that, but I must have done something wrong, since I see it is there now. I don’t think it was in my MWCD10, which I can’t find at the moment, and that was what set off this train of thought year ago. So I guess all is relatively right with the world on that front.

  44. Three syllables at most, possibly even just two (‘rɪg mrol) if I’m not enunciating carefully. From DC’s Maryland suburbs although I’ve now lived in NC for decades.

  45. Four syllables, never heard the three, but I have seen both spellings. Western Mass out of Long Island.

    Maybe I’ve heard the three as a slurred pronunciation and didn’t notice.

  46. Three syllables, never heard (of) four. Always spelled it rigmarole, never seen any other spelling. Use it occasionally. Br.E

  47. Latin pabulum ‘foodstuff, fuel’ > English pabulum ‘nourishment’ (literal or figurative) > Pablum ‘trademark for a baby food’ (1931) > ‘pablum ‘insipid or trite intellectual material’.

  48. Andrew Dunbar says

    Spelled “rigmarole” and pronounced with 3 syllables.

    Grew up in working class 1970s Melbourne, Australia.

    I’ve definitely either seen “rigamarole” or heard the 4 syllable pronunciation before, probably in foreign TV or movies.

  49. David Marjanović says

    I was wondering about pablum!

    To be more specific, when my lips close for the /m/, the tongue dorsum is still near the velum; in the spectrogram, the velar F2-F3 pinch persists until after the start of the voicing bar of the /m/.

    Nasal release of a consonant (which doesn’t happen much in English), the nasal being syllabic [m], I suppose. Syllabic consonants can occur directly next to vowels; I’m told buckling is a minimal pair in English – buck.ling meaning “young buck”, buck.l.ing meaning “buckle-ing”.

    Pic-a-nic baskets?

    I don’t know what your point is? If you pronounce picnic as pic-a-nic because you want to avoid the nasal release (see above), you’re inserting a vowel, and the vowel is syllabic.

  50. The pablum/pabulum split is notorious. Many years ago, there was an article (in the New Yorker, I believe) that deemed the use of ‘pablum’ to be an ignorant error and a harbinger of the fall of Western Civilization. Since then, all right-thinking people have used ‘pabulum’.

  51. David Marjanović, a similar minimal pair is nestling: nest + -ling versus nestle + -ing. I think of it whenever I hear “Children of the Heavenly Father”.

  52. January First-of-May says

    I had no idea that a four syllable version even existed. I can’t recall having ever seen that word in any version other than “rigmarole” (before this thread, at least), and I can’t recall having ever heard that word in any version at all – which is to be expected as I don’t live in an English-speaking country.

  53. Nelson Wripnux says

    Sounds like a Homer Simpson coinage (“saxamaphone, viomolin, “)

    I wonder if Homer would like to be cremated immediately upon dying to avoid that whole rigor-mortis-marole.

  54. Three syllables – I’ve never heard or imagined any other version. (Scotland)

  55. On further contemplation and prayer, I have decided to transcribe my pronunciation as [ɹɪ.gm̩.mǝ.ɹɔʊl]. Four syllables, but only three vowel phonemes. When I pause between the syllables, I still close my lips at the end of the second one.
    The same explanation can works for me when I try the ‘long’ pronunciations of nestling and picnic.

  56. I’m Canadian, but I learned the word from my Irish-immigrant parents. They used four syllables, so on the rare occasions that I might use the word, I do too.

    I remember Pablum from the 50s. Although basically a baby food, I vaguely remember my mother giving me it to eat when I was a young boy, when I was ill and other foods repelled me. I suppose for a young boy it was comfort food, not that that term had been coined yet.

  57. It’s always been four syllables for this American resident of various Western states. I was shocked to learn about a year ago that I’d been misspelling it all my life.

  58. Three syllables, never heard any different. Derby, England.

  59. Irish English. Never heard four syllables; would have filed “rigamarole” alongside “arthuritis”.

  60. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    Worse: the younger members of the Royal Family are more popular than such noted RP speakers as Tony mblAAA or David Cameron.

    Someone posted this today in another group: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E8czs8v6PuI

    It was recorded by Virginia Woolf in 1937.

    It doesn’t get any RPer than that. I don’t think anyone speaks like that 80 later unless they were born before 1925.

  61. Three syllables; grew up in Britain but now live in the US. I’ve heard the four-syllable pronunciation here, but always assumed it was a kind of rustic variant.

  62. Four syllables. California, Central Valley region. (Alas, @mollymooly, you made me realize I have spent my life saying “arthritus” as a four-syllable word too. . .)

  63. Perhaps symmetrically to the British hey-that-sounds-like-some-comic-yokel-saying-saxomophone reaction, my AmEng ear finds the three-syllable version oddly clipped, as if it should be spelled “rig’marole” and primarily seen in old-timey poems where no deviation from strict iambic pentameter was permitted, so you messed with the words rather than the scansion. Or maybe some sort of nautical-jargon shortening, akin to forecastle -> fo’c’sle?

  64. Red Ingle, ‘A’ You’re a Dopey Gal, here, about 1:19. “U—when your upper plate, V—starts to vibarate”.
    (The whole song, and all of his songs, are worth listening to until you’re sick of them. It might take many years.)

  65. Definitely three syllables — “rigmarole”. Grew up in the Midlands, now live in Essex. Never knew, before reading this blog entry, that anyone thought there were four. Or that anyone pronounced “pabulum” as if it were “pablum”.

    Syllabic l: if the [l] of “buckle” is syllabic, what’s the difference in the pronounciations of “buckle” and “buccal”? Or, if they are homophones, does that make the “a” silent?

  66. As far as I know, those are identical for almost everyone – I’d transcribe it as [ˇbʌkɫ̩] for most of North America, and maybe [ˈbɐko] for vernacular southern England. In phonology it’s not really of much import to say whether a particular (written) letter is silent or not, but I guess I’d say that the a in buccal isn’t, because it forms a sort of a digraph with the l to represent the syllabic consonant phoneme.

  67. Three syllables; I have never heard the four-syllable version, which gives an almost wilfully weird impression to me. I am southern English, male, 59 years old.

    On the subject of RP, (i) Virginia Wolf doesn’t sound that unusual – I have heard RP-er RP-speakers than her; (ii) my speech seems to have gradually grown more RP as I have got older. It may be an unconscious wish to differentiate myself, or perhaps some sort of instinctive social climbing; but then again, RP is not fashionable and doesn’t get you anywhere socially.

  68. I concur with Rh above; for me, it’s also three syllables verging on two, with the same schwa deletion between the m and the second r.

    I grew up in Delaware and now live in DC, so the two-syllable variant might be specific to Mid-Atlantic American English.

  69. Four.
    Miami, FL.

    Parents learned Indiana American English with proper diction and spelling.

    Four. 😉

  70. what’s the difference in the pronounciations of “buckle” and “buccal”? Or, if they are homophones, does that make the “a” silent?

    I would (BrE, RP) pronounce “buccal” with the first syllable rhyming with “dew”. Byoo-cal. Talking about an animal’s “buckle cavity” would have provoked smiles at least from my fellow zoology students.

  71. Huh, I would never have guessed that! Are there any other cases where -ucc- is pronounced “youk”?

  72. David Marjanović says

    …Am I glad I don’t work on mammals.

  73. Hmm, the British online dictionaries all give /ˈbʌkəl/ for buccal. Reminds me a bit of that mess with oral and aural.

  74. You’re right, they do — serves me right for just taking ajay’s word for it. Apparently there’s a nest of zoology students that’s adopted a, shall we say, nontraditional pronunciation and are enforcing it with smiles.

  75. Alon Lischinsky says

    @Athel Cornish-Bowden:

    I don’t think anyone speaks like that 80 later unless they were born before 1925.

    Maggie Smith can come pretty close, especially when playing the Dowager Countess of Grantham. That said, she was born in 1934.

  76. I don’t think “speaks like that” was meant to include actors playing characters born in the Victorian era.

  77. Alon Lischinsky says

    @languagehat: reason I mentioned her is because I think even actors who can convincingly pull off a Victorian RP accent are rare these days

  78. Probably true!

  79. Revising my earlier testimony:

    I heard “rigamarole” last night from an educated Corkman aged about 60. So I guess that heretofore I just haven’t been paying attention.

  80. I frequently come to a similar conclusion about myself.

  81. And so say we all.

  82. I note in the above remarks about RP a hidden polysemy between RP as a living accent, one that naturally changes with time, and RP as a frozen accent, something “written down” once and for all by Ernest Jones or somebody, and that is becoming extinct as its speakers die off. When I talk about it as a living accent, I say “RP and closely related accents” in order to straddle this dichotomy.

  83. John Cowan says

    minimal pair is nestling: nest + -ling versus nestle + -ing.

    No minimal pair for me: nest-ling and nest have /t/; nestle-ing and nestle do not.

  84. You’re right. Not for me either. I was concentrating on the syllabic l and forgetting the /t/.

  85. John Cowan says

    Ah, okay, I do have that distinction in the /l/. I was thinking this was a case like of(t)en, where a lost historic /t/ is restored in some people’s speech from the spelling.

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