vase vs. vase

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at RCI.RUTGERS.EDU
Sat Mar 12 05:19:58 UTC 2005

On Fri, 11 Mar 2005 18:05:11 -0800, Jonathan Lighter
<wuxxmupp2000 at YAHOO.COM> wrote:

>My wife, also a New Yorker, seems always to say /ves/.  She was told
>about 1970 that a /vaz/ cost more than $25.  She too thinks of it as a
>Maybe the notion of pronunciation related to price developed as a jest;
>when it was publicized, many people accepted it as true while others did
>not.  Of the "believers," a certain percentage (few, I would guess)
>actually alter their native pronunciation to accord with the "rule."
>Others pass on the information as a "fact" of interest without
>consistently altering their own pronunciation.
>It may even be that some dealers in vases deliberately changed their
>pronunciation on the assumption that /vaz/ sounded more "English" and
>therefore elegant and the sort of thing one would say to a high-toned
>customer in the market for expensive objets d'art.
>There must be a name for these phenomena. I mean besides "flattery" and

Fascinating... the newspaper databases support your theory that the whole
thing started off as a joke that was eventually taken seriously by some.
One can find discussions about the proper pronunciation of "vase" back to
the 1880s, and joking suggestions that the pronunciation variants
distinguish price or quality appear soon thereafter...

(Frederick, Md.) News, Jan. 6, 1894, p. 4
>From the New York Sun.
The later authorities in words have come to the rescue of the public. They
say that a straightforward English pronunciation of the word vase is
sufficient and desirable. In such a case it rhymes with case or base. In
certain circles the object becomes a vaze: if it is a peachblow it is a
vahze; and if it is in Boston it is a vawz. The new dictionary makers have
smashed one annoying affectation of language.
Stevens Point (Wisc.) Daily Journal, Aug. 21, 1907, p. 3
Somebody says that the difference between a vase and a "vahze" is that the
latter costs more than $2.50. But a "vahze" that costs five dollars or six
dollars is now called an amphora, and both the vahze and the amphora were
never intended for use but to be placed on stands or in niches, as
evidence that their owner has money to burn.
Mansfield (Ohio) News, Oct. 9, 1915, p. 7
Now the vase in question, you must pronounce vahze, because anything that
costs over $1.50 is pronounced as above, while if it costs less, you say
vase, making it rhyme with lace. Please make a note of the distinction.
Indianapolis Star, May 4, 1921, p. 10
Mr. Crane [sc. Ross Crane, head of the extension department of the Art
Institute of Chicago] waxed almost lyrical over the beauties of a blue
luster vase of exquisite proportions.  "Vase -- vahz -- vaz" he said,
referring to it. "If it costs over $100 it's a vahz."
Newark (Ohio) Advocate, Dec 30, 1922, p. 4
When a vase becomes inestimably precious it is called a vahze, and it
looks as though we'd have to think up some other pronunciation for coal.

In his "Take My Word For It" column, Frank Colby (and his widow after his
death) addressed the issue repeatedly -- sometimes presented as a joke,
sometimes as a serious question from a reader:

Los Angeles Times, Nov 26, 1940, p. A20
In the United States there apparently is a feeling that if a vase comes
from the five-and-ten it is simply a vayss, to rhyme with case, race. But
if it is purchased at one of the more expensive shops it is dignified by
the title vawz, to rhyme with laws.
Los Angeles Times, Feb 20, 1947, p. 10
There is a hackneyed quip to the effect that if it comes from the
five-and-ten it's a "vayss." Otherwise it's a "vahz."
Los Angeles Times, Oct 23, 1949, p. A5
[Repeats the "hackneyed quip" of the 1947 column.]
Los Angeles Times, Jul 2, 1952, p. A5
Beverly Hills: When you can spare the space, will you be kind enough to
comment on the pronunciation of the word vase? I have been told that any
vase which costs less than one dollar is pronounced: vayss; if it costs
more than one dollar it is pronounced: vawz. Anything to that? -- L.Y.O.
Answer-- Of course not. "Vahz" and "vawz" are Briticisms, and either is a
little too lah-de-dah for the average American, regardless of the cost of
the ornament. Best usage in the United States is: vayss, to rhyme with
"base, lace, case, chase."
Syracuse Post Standard, Oct. 30, 1956, p. 19
Boulder: My little son's teacher (second grade) has told him that if a
vase is bought at the five-and-dime store (strange name nowadays, when if
you get anything there for a dollar, you're lucky), it is pronounced
"vayss"; but if it costs more than $5, then the pronunciation is "vahz,"
or some such queer sounding thing. What's the good word? -- Mrs. E.O.
Answer: The idea is ridiculous. In the United States the rhyme with case,
race, has been best usage for 150 years. The "ah" and "aw" sounds are
Briticisms, and the price has nothing at all to do with the pronunciation.

--Ben Zimmer

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