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.

  29. I’m a vegan in the Midwest and it drives me crazy when people pronounce it VAY-gun… It seems only meat-eaters pronounce it like that. Ugh I guess in the land of meat, cheese, and ranch on everything you shouldn’t expect people to understand your lifestyle but c’mon at least pronounce it right.

  30. Well, “right” in language is simply “how most people say it.” If vegans say VEE-gun and non-vegans say VAY-gun, that suggests (as I said above) diet-based dialects, which is odd and interesting, but neither side is “wrong.”

  31. marie-lucie says

    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

    There is a French saying: comme une poule qui a couvé un canard ‘like a hen that has hatched a duck’, This is how a mother feels whose child or children turned out to be quite different from herself, exactly how Watson’s mother felt.

    I am not sure if “hatch” is the right equivalent of couver, which is what a hen or other female bird does by ‘sitting’ on her eggs until the baby birds break the shell and emerge. Isn’t “hatch” what the egg does by breaking, rather than the mother bird?

  32. No, that’s a later sense; the first one refers to the hen. OED (entry from 1898):

    1. intr. To bring forth young birds from the egg by incubation.
    a1250 Owl & Nightingale 105 Thu..leidest thar-on thy fole ey; Tho hit bi-com that he haȝte, And of his eyre briddes y-raȝte.
    1399 Langland Richard Redeles iii. 444 Þis brid..hopith ffor to hacche or heruest begynne.
    1573–80 J. Baret Aluearie H 226 That hath lately hatched, or brought forth..effœtus.
    1720 in T. D’Urfey Wit & Mirth VI. 316 My Hen has hatch’d to Day.
    1879 Daily News 19 Apr. 3/3 Robins and hedge-sparrows are now setting or hatching-out.

    2. trans. To bring forth from the egg either by natural or artificial heat. (Also with forth, out.)

    a. with the young as obj.
    1398 J. Trevisa tr. Bartholomew de Glanville De Proprietatibus Rerum (Tollem. MS) xii. i, Whan hire ȝonge briddes beþ newliche i heyȝt [1495 haughte].
    c1440 Promptorium Parvulorum 232/2 Hetchyd, as byrdys, pullificatus, fetatus.
    1545 G. Joye Expos. Daniel Ep. Ded. f. 2, These..wil sitte their egges and hatcheforth their chikens.
    1578 B. Googe tr. C. Heresbach Foure Bks. Husb. (rev. ed.) iv. f. 160, You must not take the Chickins away as thei be hatcht.
    1653 I. Walton Compl. Angler x. 189 Barnacles and young Goslings bred by the Suns heat and the rotten planks of an old Ship, and hatched of trees.
    1774 O. Goldsmith Hist. Earth V. 241 In this fortress the male and female hatch and bring up their brood with security.
    1890 Spectator 8 Feb. One of them having failed to hatch out a brood.

    b. with the egg as obj.: To incubate.
    a1382 Bible (Wycliffite, E.V.) (Douce 369(1)) (1850) Isa. lix. 5 [The ey] that is hacchid, shal breken out in to a cokatrice.
    1555 R. Eden tr. Peter Martyr of Angleria Decades of Newe Worlde i. ii. f. 9v, Sume haue alredy hatched their egges.
    1698 J. Fryer New Acct. E.-India & Persia 424 Turtles, or Tortoises..came ashoar to lay their Eggs, which these Sands hatch.
    1830 W. Greaves in J. Baxter Libr. Agric. & Hort. Knowl. 313 These eggs are hatched by the heat of the sun.
    1834 H. McMurtrie tr. G. de Cuvier Animal Kingdom (abridged ed.) 168 No Reptile hatches its eggs.

    3. intr. for pass.

    a. Of the young: To come forth from the egg.

    b. Said of the egg.
    1594 Shakespeare Lucrece sig. G1, Why should..hatefull Kuckcowes hatch in Sparrows nests?
    1728 E. Chambers Cycl. at Hatching, After this they put in the Eggs to hatch.
    1876 F. Francis Bk. Angling (ed. 4) v. 175 Larvæ, rising from the bottom to hatch out.
    1888 Lloyd Pryce Pheasant Rearing 26 The eggs will hatch out in from twenty-three to twenty-five days.

  33. Hatch has meant ‘incubate’ as well since the mid-16C, per the OED. I might tend to say hatched out myself.

  34. marie-lucie says

    From most of the examples, it looks like hatch is the end of the process, the equivalent of birth, while couver is what the hen does to keep the eggs warm while waiting for the babies to mature enough to come out.

  35. True; for the activity prior to hatching there’s “to brood (on).”

  36. marie-lucie says

    Thanks LH. I remember reading this word, but mostly in the meaning “to mope, dwell on negative thoughts”.

  37. jimmygulag says

    iwill use my ree-gun to ex-tee, anyone who sees me eating Veegan and not vay-gn.

  38. I’ve been wondering about the pronunciation of vegans for ages, and also thought that would refer to beings from Vega. (This also begs the question of the why the Chevy Vega was pronounced with a short e.) Anyway, thanks for setting me straight.

    So I guess it’s a case of “what was he thinking” when Donald Watson decided on the pronunciation. Since vegans eat vegetable based diets, it is only logical that the pronunciations be similar. It’s kind of like saying that people from Japan are Gapanese. I had always thought that someone way back pronounced it wrong and it caught on. Kind of like Panasonic’s 1970s vintage series of hi-fi components called Techniks, which everyone (except me and the TV ad) pronounced as Techniques.

  39. Heh. I said Techniques as well; I guess I didn’t see (or didn’t pay attention to) the TV ad.

  40. David Marjanović says

    And I’m another who’s only ever heard “VEE-g’n”.

    It never occurred to me that another pronunciation might exist in English.

  41. Rodger C says

    why the Chevy Vega was pronounced with a short e

    You mean to rhyme with “mega”? I hardly think so. At any rate I suppose that the pronunciation as “Vayga” was intended to evoke Spanish.

  42. John Cowan says

    Several sources agree that vegan was coined in 1944 by Donald Watson and Dorothy Morgan as an irregular clipping of vegetarian. As such, I bet it was once pronounced /vɛdʒən/, and the spelling pronunciation /vigən/ arose later in the usual way: people who saw it in print but had never heard it, as in the Pittsburgh /əˈziməv/ Society (not its actual name). When I met a member and said “Whaaat?, he replied: “Well, it’s pronounced ilke /əˈziməθ/, right?”

  43. Several sources agree that vegan was coined in 1944 by Donald Watson and Dorothy Morgan as an irregular clipping of vegetarian. As such, I bet it was once pronounced /vɛdʒən/, and the spelling pronunciation /vigən/ arose later in the usual way

    Did you not read the post? Watson, who coined it, said “The pronunciation is VEE-gan.” QED.

  44. David Marjanović says

    “It’s pronounced JIF, not GIF!”


    (I looked it up to be sure.)

  45. My all-time favorite Bloom County strip is probably funnier if the reader doesn’t know how to pronounce vegan. Both the word and the diet were a lot less known in 1989, although Berke Breathed must have known the correct pronunciation, since (as noted below the comic) his then-wife was a vegan. (She now has her own vegan food business, apparently).

  46. J.W. Brewer says

    @Brett, but what if Breathed is presupposing a variant pronunciation of “Megan” and getting his rhyme that way?

  47. I find it funny just with the assonance. “It’s pewter, Peter!” would also tickle me.

  48. David Eddyshaw says

    Nowadays this would of course be “I’m a veghan, Meghan.”

  49. @J.W. Brewer: I don’t know if I had ever considered that possibility, even though at the time that strip came out, I had a friend who pronounced her name to rhyme with vegan.

  50. Tegan, of Canadian singing duo Tegan and Sara, is /ˈtiːɡən/.

  51. David Eddyshaw says

    Tegan is “toy” in Welsh. Obviously no self-respecting Modern Woman will therefore wish to pronounce it more Cambrico.

  52. Megan prepared for this dinner quite thoroughly (6 hours!), even bought silencer for her revolver, which apparently is a tricky thing.

  53. @D.O.: There isn’t a silencer; the revolver just has a long barrel, with wisps of Steve’s Alan Alda perm making it look like the barrel is in two pieces.

  54. Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Civilization dates from way back in 1934. About “mnemotechnic” in Ulysses there’s also

    The OED rhymes “technic” with “Heck, Nick” in both British and American pronunciation.

Speak Your Mind