Kevin Bacon was the celebrity guest on today’s Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!, and apparently he’s appearing in the latest movie based on the X-Men comics. I have no interest in either comic or movie, but what did catch my attention was that he pronounced the title /’eksmən/, with a reduced vowel in the final syllable like that in policemen. I myself would say /’eksˌmen/, with secondary stress and full vowel in the final syllable, but it occurs to me that if you have to say the word a lot (as, for example, if you are a cast member), you might start using a reduced form, in a sort of sped-up version of normal linguistic change. Or perhaps everyone says it that way now; how would I know? Or perhaps it’s unique to Bacon, or even a slip of the tongue. So I throw the question out there: does the reduced-vowel version seem OK to you? Would you use it yourself?


  1. For me (as a fan of the comics) it seems perfectly fine to use the reduced form. Other occupational terms with “man” or “men”, like “postmen” or “journeymen” can be similarly reduced.

  2. I can’t recall hearing the non-Bacon version. Using a full vowel with secondary stress makes the name too close to “ex-men.”

  3. There was actually an entire conversation about this on “Friends”, “The One with the Tiny T-Shirt”:
    Phoebe: (to Chandler) Hey! (Chandler looks up, startled) Why isn’t it Spiderman? [pronounced with the reduced vowel in the final syllable] Y’know like Goldman, Silverman…
    Chandler: ‘Cause it’s-it’s not his last name.
    Phoebe: It isn’t?
    Chandler: No, it’s not like, like Phil Spiderman. He’s a spider, man. Y’know like ah, like Goldman is a last name, but there’s no Gold Man.
    Phoebe: Oh, okay. There should be Gold Man!
    I have to say I agree with Chandler: superhero names shouldn’t be pronounced with a reduced vowel on the “man”.

  4. I agree with Chandler too, but mishac and Wimbrel have convinced me Bacon is not alone and in fact probably represents standard current usage. Once again my codgerdom is confirmed.

  5. Been a fan of X-Men since I as a kid. I usually pronounce it [ˈɛksmɨn]

  6. I would think fans, or even those who are simply familiar with the franchise would pronounce it the way Bacon did. To prounounce the full “men” sounds like someone who dooesn’t really understand it. My grandmother continues to use the word ‘internet’ in a way that conveys the same distance from understanding.

  7. Well, I’m with you, Hat, which is probably just added evidence. I called them /ˈɛksmɛn/ back in the early 60s when I first read the comics, and /ˈɛksmɛn/ they remain for me today. Note also the canonical spelling Spider-Man, where the hyphen is not required typographically (as it is in X-Men) and instead serves to indicate the dvandva nature of the compound.
    What I am not with you on is the belíef that there exísts a sécondàry stress phónème in Énglish. Énglish sýllables are éither stréssed, ùnstréssed but ùnredúced, or ùnstréssed and redúced. Redúction is a change in vówel quálity, as in Rússian, but in Rússian all ùnstréssed syllables are prèdíctably redúced. (Accents of English vary, of course: some use sécondary or even sécond’ry rather than sécondàry.)
    There are stresses of varying weight which form part of the English intonation system, but that’s a whole nother thing. In actual enunciation, ùnstréssed but ùnredúced in the sentence above gets contrastive stress on the first syllables that is actually stronger than the primary stress; indeed, the normally stress-free monosyllable not gets the strongest stress of all.

  8. I have to disagree with Justin; I know plenty of fans who pronounce the second syllable with a full vowel.

  9. mollymooly says

    I’ve always pronounced it /ˈkaɪ mɛn/.
    Some X-Men are in fact X-Women. Maybe the reduced pronunciation is a tad less gendered. Wikipedia tells me that the X-People are distinct from the X-Men.

  10. This thread surprises me because I’ve seen two TV series and the first four movies and I’m fairly confident that /’eksˌmen/ is the version used in all of them. See e.g. here.
    Bacon’s version sounds weird and wrong to me.

  11. Whether people say /’eksˌmen/ or /’eksmən/ is surely to some extent a matter of what part of the US they come from ? In much Texas speech, as far as I remember, the final syllables of words do not become reduced as in /’eksmən/. That is true of the way I talk, even though I don’t have a Texas drawl. You won’t catch me using a la-di-da pronunciation such as sécond’ry.
    The part of speech of a word also plays a role. Many of my German IT colleagues pronounce the adjective “duplicate” just like the verb. I tell them they should say /dúplicet/. It may be that some people schwat the e in an adjectival “X-Men”, as in “X-Men films”, but say /’eksˌmen/ when referring to the characters.

  12. I think it is fair to say that English pronunciation will be affected more and more by non-native speakers pronouncing words as they imagine they should be pronounced, given their own language and the rules they may have read about English orthography and pronunciation. The problem is that they have not heard enough English actually spoken.
    For some years now I have been subjected to irritation at sentences like the following, which I just encountered on a website: “A catalog is a xml file with such content:” (followed by an example). This was clearly written by a furriner, but I have seen otherwise idiomatic IT English, probably written by Americans, containing the expressions “a xml file” and “a html file”.
    Of course what one says is “an xml file” and “an html file”. I suspect that the writers have learned a defective version of the “a/an” rule – a “visual version”, as if the rule were “use an only before a word that is seen to begin with a vowel letter”.

  13. I would say /’ɛks mɛn/

  14. Trond Engen says

    Of course what one says is “an xml file” and “an html file”
    When yours truly foreign has made that error, it’s been achieved in editing. Well, at least in the cases I’ve noticed myself. I think I’m less likely to spot a switch to ‘an’ on paper when there’s no visible vowel.

  15. I suppose I get irritated at that typo because I “read aloud in my head” – most of the time, I think. Are there (m)any people who don’t read this way ?
    The rule for “a/an” should be phrased like this, without reference to text: “English speakers don’t like the catch in speech flow that would occur if an ‘a’ sound is directly followed by another vowel sound, so they put an ‘n’ in between”. Of course “uh-oh” is unaffected by this rule.

  16. I think both pronunciations are fine. I’ve heard both so many times I don’t know which one I’ve heard more, not just because I was crazy about comics when I was a kid, but also because in Nova Scotia we’ve got St. Francis Xavier University, where the men’s sports teams are known as the X-Men (the women’s teams are, of course, the X-Women).

  17. And there are ones that work both ways, like “a[n] SQL query.”

  18. And there are ones that work both ways, like “a[n] SQL query.”
    Cunning example, MMcM ! There are two pronunciations of “SQL”, namely “es queue el” and “sequel”:

    The original SQL standard declared that the official pronunciation for SQL is “es queue el”. Many English-speaking database professionals still use the nonstandard pronunciation … “sequel”

    Thanks to your example, it becomes clear that the “a/an” rule for acronyms cannot be accurately formulated solely in terms of initial letter. The correct form of the article depends on the convention used to pronounce the initial section of an acronym: 1) pronounced-letter (“an NBC special”), or 2) pronounced-word (“a FIFA scandal”).

  19. michael farris says

    As someone who read the comics for years I always mentally pronounced it [‘eksmen] (with vowel raising in the second syllable since I have the pen/pin merger).
    Another interesting case is the Sub-Mariner. I heard the ‘official’ pronunciation where the second part is prounced like the ancient mariner before encountering the character in paper form so that’s how I mentally pronounced it.
    I was surprised that many/most who first saw the name in print mentally pronounced it as if he were someone who submarined.
    I also mentally pronounced the character Magneto as [mæg’nedo] (thinking it was like magnetic). Pronouncing it like the electrical generator [mæg’ni:do] never would have occurred to me but it’s what man/most people say.

  20. If you treat it as a phrase, men will be pronounced with a full (lax) vowel – /ˈɛks’mɛn/
    If you treat X-Men as a compound, the second syllable will be reduced, yielding /’eksmən/

  21. mollymooly says

    “a html file” could be spoken and written by an Irish person. When discussing the Health Service Executive, our parliamentarians all say “a HSE”, although evidence from written ministerial responses suggests one of the civil servants in the Department of Health is a Protestant.

  22. mollymooly: is HSE, is it pronounced haitch ?
    Looking up dvandva in French Google (which as I am in France now my computer defaults to), I found:
    “Un dvandva ou dvaṃdva (Sanskrit en devanāgarī : द्वन्द्व)[1], mot composé copulatif, ou mot composé coordonné est un mot composé dont les constituants forment une énumération virtuelle.”
    “Copulatif”? A curious (to me) usage…
    However, Le Tresor then informs me that it is a standard linguistic term, from the Latin copulativus, and makes no reference to any other possible meaning.

  23. “Copulatif”? A curious (to me) usage…
    Putting one and one together has seemed curious only since 1963. Curiosity itself has been held in suspicion for much longer.

  24. Not being native speaker of any European language, I thought upon my first encounter to the word “copulative”, hey, why doesn’t that have to do with the copulas?

  25. Mona Williams says

    @Grumbly Stu:
    “Thanks to your example, it becomes clear that the “a/an” rule for acronyms cannot be accurately formulated solely in terms of initial letter.”
    Actually, according to Garner’s Modern American Usage, an acronym is always pronounced as a word, as distinguished from an initialism, whose letters are pronounced separately. SQL looks like a good example of an (initial) initialism moving steadily to acronym status, helped along by those of us who are determined to pronounce things the easiest way possible!

  26. according to Garner’s Modern American Usage, an acronym is always pronounced as a word
    “NBC” is an acronym, “FIFA” is another. An acronym was, and still is, “a word … formed from the initial letter or letters of each of the successive parts or major parts of a compound term”.
    The word “initialism” as you use it describes one way of pronouncing an acronym. Given this, one naturally wants a word to describe the other way. What purpose is served by redefining “acronym” to mean that other way of pronunciation ? The result is that we no longer have a word to describe that structurally defined group of lexical items we were talking about: “acronyms”.
    One purpose is the satisfaction specialists derive from changing the rules, and promulgating the changes to the masses. To all appearances, the rules are not even changed arbitrarily – books and books are written with backing arguments. This is also the story of the recent absurd hatchet-job called the German “spelling reform”, where every linguist and pedagogue had to get into the act, along with their wayward mothers.
    SQL looks like a good example of an (initial) initialism moving steadily to acronym status, helped along by those of us who are determined to pronounce things the easiest way possible!
    It’s the other way around. Certain older IT people say “sequel” for historial reasons, but “es queue el” is the standard pronunciation nowadays. From the WiPe article I linked above:

    SQL was developed at IBM by Donald D. Chamberlin and Raymond F. Boyce in the early 1970s. This version, initially called SEQUEL (Structured English Query Language), was designed to manipulate and retrieve data stored in IBM’s original quasi-relational database management system, System R, which a group at IBM San Jose Research Laboratory had developed during the 1970s. The acronym SEQUEL was later changed to SQL because “SEQUEL” was a trademark of the UK-based Hawker Siddeley aircraft company

  27. I am biased…I despise the British and how we cater to their influences…pronouncing X-Men British style is just Kevin “Numbskull” Bacon being a Hollywood snob…”proNUNCE’in it the Queen’s way, “maen” instead of “mEn”–but then I am and have been since childhood a despiser (a kind word) of British influence on OUR (American Chauvinist collective) culture, language, music, dress, art, cooking, acting, literature…sorry, I’m off on an anglophobic rant…
    ur fiend

  28. BrE speaker, I must have seen many hours of the various X-Men cartoons as well as the films and the /-mən/ version sounds very strange to me indeed; I’d only say the non-reduced version. So for whatever it’s worth @TGW even if KB is attempting a British-ism (don’t know why you would think so though) I wouldn’t say he succeeded.
    It could be interesting to compare the case of “Watchmen” — in established words (like “night watchmen”) it’s clearly /-mən/ ; very quick check for BrE suggests “Watchmen” gets a /ə/ too (see 1, 2, 3). I had imagined /e/ would be possible for this one too, but maybe not!
    @mollymooly I remember something similar from my brief acquaintance with English morphology — reduced vowel /-mən/ is semantically bleached somewhat; compare “that fireman was a woman” and “that angry man was a woman”.

  29. minus273: I thought upon my first encounter to the word “copulative”, hey, why doesn’t that have to do with the copulas?
    Do you mean the Francis Ford Copulas ?

  30. Apparently I was misusing the term dvandva, which refers to a compounding style not much used in English. In a proper dvandva compound, the referent is the union of the referents of the compounded parts; Spider-Man, however, refers to the being who is at the intersection of spiders and men.
    Quoth Wikipedia:

    Examples include Sanskrit mātāpitarau (मातापितरौ) for ‘mother and father’; Chinese shānchuān and Japanese yamakawa (山川) for ‘mountains and rivers’ […]. Note such compounds as singer-songwriter, in the sense ‘someone who is both a singer and a songwriter’ are not dvandva compounds. Within the Sanskrit classification of compounds these are considered कर्मधारय karmadhāraya compounds such as राजर्षि rājarṣi ‘king-sage,’ i.e. ‘one who is both a king and a sage’ (राजा चासावृषिश्च).

    Wiktionary gives a few English dvandva compounds such as Africa-Eurasia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Schleswig-Holstein, and I just added Austria-Hungary. They also list gerund-participle, but I think this is rightly a karmadharaya-type compound, as it refers to the English morphological form that is both a gerund and a (present) participle.

  31. Bathrobe says

    So what does that make 山河 shān-hé, literally ‘mountains and rivers’, i.e., the topographical features (of a land), but extended to mean ‘(the territory of) a country’?

  32. Mona Williams says

    @Grumbly Stu:
    I think Garner is trying not so much to redefine “acronym” as to say something additional about it, which is not given, at least, in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary definition This “something additional,” referring to its being pronounced as a single word, is not contradicted in the SOED definition of “initialism,” which refers specifically to separate pronunciation of letters. The two definitions are compatible, but not, I agree, cleanly separated.
    As to “sequel” being the older pronunciation, I concede. I just assumed “sequel” would be a logical sequel to “ess que ell.”

  33. mollymooly says

    Greek soccer team’s names are word-acronyms. AEK is called /eI i keI/ by British commentators but /aik/ by Greeks. I suppose that this tendency reflects the fact that letters of the Greek alphabet tend to have polysyllabic names.
    @Paul: I couldn’t find anyone saying “a(n) HTML” in parliament, so I used “a(n) HSE” instead. The name of “H” is pronounced “haitch” in the Republic of Ireland, except by some scions of the former Protestant Ascendancy, whose linguistic distinctiveness is tenuously maintained by the sectarian education system, and the occasional West Brit. It’s a shibboleth Irish emigrants often drop.

  34. I agree with Ran — I would never reduce the vowel. (Although Justin’s comment did induce a microcrisis of self-doubt, showing that I am at least a true nerd.)
    After a bit of reflection, I think part of the reason is that words like “X-Men” “Spider-Man” (it’s actually hyphenated, true story), “Superman”, etc. are meant to emphasize the difference in nature between regular men and the supernatural protagonists, whereas words like “watchmen”, “henchmen”, “footmen”, “policemen” are just roles that anyone can perform. (Neologism/proper noun vs established, regular word also plays a part, though, no doubt.)
    It would be interesting to test this theory by searching for situations where the (something)-man pattern becomes a mere role rather than a difference in essential nature. Does the word “Batmen” get much use in the current “Batman, Inc.” storyline, where Batman starts franchising worldwide? If so, how do folks pronounce it? etc.

  35. Bathrobe says

    Surely we would need to keep the difference between Batman and batman since they are two different words. “I was Kaiser Bill’s batman” somehow wouldn’t sound the same if it was pronounced as though Robin were involved too.

  36. Bathrobe says

    Surely we would need to keep the difference between Batman and batman since they are two different words. “I was Kaiser Bill’s batman” somehow wouldn’t sound the same if it was pronounced as though Robin were involved too.

  37. A bit off topic: When I pronounce a place-name of the form “X Street” the word “Street” is unstressed. Yet this is never true of “X Road”, “X Avenue”, “X Lane”, “X Boulevard”, “X Parkway”, and so on. Why?

  38. In the first half of the 20th century, newspapers often wrote “Foobar-street” instead of “Foobar Street”, perhaps because of this pronunciation rule.

  39. When I pronounce a place-name of the form “X Street” the word “Street” is unstressed. Yet this is never true of “X Road”, “X Avenue”, “X Lane”, “X Boulevard”, “X Parkway”, and so on.
    I myself say “‘Wall ‘Street” and “‘Fleet ‘Street” (equal stress on each word). In America, isn’t it a feature of Southern-States English that all syllables get a fairly equal share of stress ?

  40. John, I did not know that. But I had thought of saying ” I pronounce “X Street” as if it is one word, but I pronounce “X Road” as two words.
    Stu, do you pronounce “X Street” and “X Road” with an identical pattern of pitch and stress?

  41. Sorry about the stray quotation mark.

  42. empty: do you pronounce “X Street” and “X Road” with an identical pattern of pitch and stress?
    Yes, as far as I can make out. Some examples I considered: Elm Street, Mean Street, Farm Road 17, Silk Road, Mountain Road.
    Do you mean by pitch something like uptalk ? You’re asking whether I warble the streets, and rumble the roads ?

  43. When I say Main Street the main is louder and higher than the street. When I say Main Road there is no difference in loudness or pitch from one word to the other; or rather road starts on the same pitch as main and then falls a bit from there.

  44. I can’t identify any systematic difference in how I say these things. Equal stress is the rule- unless, of course, I stress one word or the other for a particular reason:
    – Did you say Main Street or Main Road ?
    – I said Main STREET.
    Another example:
    – Did you say Main Street or Mean Road ?
    – I said MEAN STREET.

  45. But what about Sesame Streeeet?
    Joralemon Street in Providence has always struck me as a lovely, very 19C-sounding name. I don’t know what its history is. Strike that, it’s in Brooklyn not Providence. There is a street with a funny name in Providence, though. I’m sure Ø knows what I’m thinking of.

  46. I never tire of pointing out (sorry) that Friendship is a one-way street in Providence. Is that what you mean?

  47. Oh and as for the topic, I was once in a play at school with a guy who went on to make a movie with Kevin “Streaky” Bacon, so if anyone wants to ask why he says /’eksmən/ I’ll pass it on, but my guess is it sounds ok because it’s similar to the way one would say “mad axe man”.

  48. No it’s not Friendship…I’ll have to look.

  49. No, I know what it is. In the 70s some friends of mine lived on Benevolent Street. So “Friendship” was pretty close, actually.

  50. (In case anyone wants to pursue it that thing about Kevin Bacon was a lie, by the way.)

  51. There is an actual Desrie street and streetcar, I know.
    Portland OR has a Going Street and used to have a Failing School.

  52. On addition to Benevolent and Friendship, Providence has streets called Hope and Benefit. This seems to be in keeping with the name of the city, but I don’t know the history.

  53. It says here that Joralemon Street is “Named after Teunis Joralemon a prominent attorney and Kings County judge.” And that “Joralemon Street cuts through land that was originally part of Philip Livingston’s 40-acre Brooklyn farm, which Livingston purchased in 1764; Joralemon purchased a portion of that land in 1803. Other prominent land owners in the area were the Pierrepontt and Middagh families.” It says here that “In 1803 Teunis Joralemon, a ‘Jerseyman of Dutch extraction’ said to resemble the Italian poet Dante, bought a portion of the old Livingston estate. He continued to use the Livingston garden as such, and it is reported he enjoyed taking his boat full of fresh vegetables and milk to market in Manhattan. Reportedly, Mr. Joralemon ‘disliked too much civilization’ and he was obstinately opposed to the city trustees pushing Henry and Clinton Streets through his property, in 1826 and 1834 respectively. It is said he was equally appalled at a street being named after him.”
    I wonder in what way he resembled Dante.

  54. A lot of those look like Quaker names. They seemed to like to instantiate abstract virtues.

  55. The X-Men are a superhero team in the Marvel Comics Universe.[1] They were created by writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby, and first appeared in The X-Men #1 (September 1963). The basic concept of the X-Men is that under a cloud of increasing anti-mutant sentiment, Professor Xavier created a haven at his Westchester mansion to train young mutants to use their powers for the benefit of humanity, and to prove mutants can be heroes.[2] Xavier recruited Cyclops, Iceman, Angel, Beast and Marvel Girl, calling them “X-Men” because they possess special powers due to their possession of the “X-Gene,” a gene which normal humans lack and which gives Mutants their abilities. Early on, however, the “X” in X-Men stood for “extra” power which normal humans lacked. It was also alluded to that mutations occurred as a result of radiation exposure.
    [Spam link removed -LH]

  56. Bathrobe says

    Interesting. Calling Marvel Girl an “X-Man” suggests that feminists didn’t totally get it right when they asserted that ‘-man’ is a discriminatory suffix.

  57. feminists didn’t totally get it right when they asserted that ‘-man’ is a discriminatory suffix
    Being toxomannish, they will persist in their search for something else to complain about. Complaining is a typical feature of women, although of course not gynetic. I’m here to tell you about it.

  58. Mr. Dodge was fond of strolling down the few short blocks to the river in the evenings to his yacht Sylvie, where he would then take a sail around Governors Island.
    I like this idea a lot. It’s a perfect activity for New York in the summer.
    I think my friends lived on Benefit Street, not Benevolent. Then they divorced and she moved to Detroit and became a dancer. He keeps goats, in Pennsylvania.

  59. I was very surprised to discover one day that Benevolent Street is in two parts. (A passing motorist was looking for an address, and we both became greatly puzzled.) I suppose that this was not always the case, that Brown University once abolished a block of it in order to build something.

  60. That sounds familiar, though of course universities all over do it. I’m not sure how they get away with it; they can hardly threaten that they’re going to relocate if they don’t get their way.

  61. Complaining is a typical feature of women
    And, of course, of men, except for the strong, silent type who never talk about their experiences on Iwo Jima, but they’ve pretty much died out.

  62. ASL Learner: Just so you don’t pronounce cation as in vacation. Isaac Asimov said that the pronunciation of unionized and the meaning of mole were the two shibboleths that identified a chemist.

  63. I’m not comfortable with the words “cation” and “anion” no matter how they’re pronounced. But what is comfort?

  64. Not sure what I meant, except that these words irritate me faintly by trying to rhyme with altercations and onions. I almost never need to pronounce them.

  65. What about the two different pronunciations of “periodic” in “periodic table” and “periodic acid” (which is like perchloric acid with iodine in place of chlorine)?

  66. That’s a good one!

  67. Well, periodic is not a shibboleth as such, since both pronunciations are used in technical terms. Though periodic acid would be.

  68. marie-lucie says

    “Joralemon Street”
    There is a David Joralemon who is well-known in Mayanist circles – one of the people studying ancient Maya writing, etc. I have always wondered about how to pronounce his name. Who here knows?

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