By my reckoning, I speak in about as unremarkable an accent of American English as possible, as did most anyone I knew growing up in my upper-middle-class suburb of Washington, D.C. I do not say wuhter, like some Baltimoreans I know, nor do I occasionally reveal a hint of twang, like some Virginians I know. There are no regional markers or aberrant inflections in my lily white, mid-Atlantic nonaccent. Putting aside the fact that Americans speak in as many dialects as they have regions, races, cultures, and classes, I’ve always conceived my own speech as being utterly non-distinct. You know—normal.
Except, it turns out, when I say coupon.
My wife, too, speaks in what scholars call General American, with only the occasional Midwestern lilt. (She’s from St. Louis.) But when she says that word—and she insists she says it right—it comes out koopon. When I say it, it’s cyoopon. We had been a couple for several years before she pointed out the discrepancy, and until that point I’m not sure I’d registered that anyone said coupon any differently than I and my family and, as far as I knew, everyone I know did. Like dog and Trump, there was only one way to pronounce coupon, and if anyone said it another way, I didn’t notice. Now I had to wonder if there had been a glitch or antique in my speech the entire time.
First, points to my wife, who argued, correctly, that you would never stage a cyoo d’état; coup is pronounced coo, and so it follows that coupon, which derives from the French verb couper (“to cut”), would share the pronunciation. Now that I’ve been thinking about this silly topic for a while, I realize most Brits say koo, not cyoo. Dictionaries on both sides of the pond say I am wrong, or at least that koopon is the preferred pronunciation, as do almost every one of those pronunciation guides on YouTube:
The shockingly robust cottage industry of YouTube pronunciation services is not unanimous on this matter, however. According to Pronunciation Book—bless them—it’s cyoopon, a stance that has earned the video 81 thumbs up and 154 thumbs down. Sample comment: “THERE IS NO Q IN COUPON!!!!”
And so it would seem that what I always assumed was normal is very much not. And yet: When the website coupons.com polled the issue in 2011, it found that 57 percent of respondents said cyoopon—with the top 5 states that favored the pronunciation including New Mexico, Idaho, the Dakotas, and (confusingly) my wife’s state, Missouri. Meanwhile, according to that survey, the District of Columbia, whose city limits I grew up not far from, vastly prefers koopon, even though I do not. Other data sets, including a vast one collected by Cambridge University’s Bert Vaux, show a preference for koopon—and as this coupon-specific map drawn from that data shows, I am indeed a geographic outlier.
Normal or not, I cherish these quirks of our language, these reminders that it is the stretchy sinew of all of our backgrounds and experiences. I may find it a little weird when I hear someone say idear instead of idea, but it also gives me a frisson. I’m glad its speaker may not be aware that it’s not or no longer normal, and I treasure that this fragment of a past era or a present demimonde has made it to my ear. That’s why, after a brief crisis of pronunciation, I’ve decided to stand by cyoopon and move on to other matters.
Like how to say cumin.
Read more from Normal, Slate's pop-up blog about how you're supposed to do it.