"Cretin" and "Cretan" are homophones...right?
March 4, 2017 9:39 AM   Subscribe

I'm reading a book where, in dialogue, someone can hear the difference between these words. Book is set in Vancouver BC. Is this a real thing, and if so, how are those words pronounced?

Here's the passage:

"Oh my God!" I blurted. "You are such a Cretan!"

His lips curled slightly. "I believe you mean cretin. If I were a Cretan, I'd be from the island of Crete."

My face felt like it was on fire. Cretin was one of those words if only seen written down. I'd never heard it said aloud.


In my Wisconsin accent those words are identical, pronounced kree-tin, but the book is set (and the author lives in) in Vancouver BC, so does this passage make sense there?? (Also open to the possibility that I'm just saying those words wrong; as the character points out, they don't exactly come up a lot.)
posted by goodbyewaffles to Writing & Language (31 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
I've only ever heard cretin pronounced "kreh-tin."
posted by ronofthedead at 9:46 AM on March 4 [8 favorites]


Cretin can be pronounced to rhyme with settin' or seatin'. The former is apparently more common in British English, and the latter is apparently more common in US English. (Though I'm not at all sure that this is true, as the last few times I've heard other Americans say it, they've rhymed it with settin', which is also how I pronounce it.)

Anyway, your pronunciation is the listed one in Merriam-Webster, so you're not saying it wrong.
posted by wintersweet at 9:46 AM on March 4 [3 favorites]


One is kreh-tin, the other is kree-tan.
posted by scruss at 9:47 AM on March 4 [4 favorites]


A quick look at the dictionary suggests that "cretin" can be pronounced "kreh-tin," especially by the Brits. So maybe in Canada, they say it that way.
posted by coppermoss at 9:47 AM on March 4 [1 favorite]


Scruss, the second syllable is different too?
posted by goodbyewaffles at 9:48 AM on March 4


I should add that my pronunciation is based on living in Kansas most of my life. So ... I dunno. Maybe I have heard it pronounced the other way and have just forgotten.
posted by ronofthedead at 9:49 AM on March 4


Cretin rhymes with bettin'. Cretan rhymes with Wheaton (surname). Canadian anglophone here.
posted by Klaxon Aoooogah at 9:56 AM on March 4 [11 favorites]


If we're doing a poll, US with midwestern roots but a southeastern transplant: they are homophones to me.
posted by Stewriffic at 10:06 AM on March 4


The second syllables are identical: both are /tən/ or /tn̩/, depending on how you want to render it (the schwa virtually vanishes). Definitely not /tæn/ as in tan.
posted by wintersweet at 10:13 AM on March 4 [1 favorite]


Canadian here who pronounces it kree-tan. What shaped my pronunciation was The Ramones' "Cretin Hop," which I think makes me an outlier.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 10:40 AM on March 4 [6 favorites]


New England-born anglophile. Crehtin sounds British or upper-crust Boston, Creet-tin sounds normal and the same as Cretan.
posted by zippy at 11:28 AM on March 4 [4 favorites]


I'm another person who learned to pronounce "cretin" from the Ramones.
posted by rhizome at 11:52 AM on March 4 [2 favorites]


Buffalonian in the south, and I say "CREH-tin" (more like, "CREH-tn") and though I have never had reason to refer aloud to the people of Crete, I'd say it to rhyme with beaten.
posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 12:15 PM on March 4 [1 favorite]


Huh, I pronounce "cretin" as CREH-tin, and "Cretan" and "creh-TÆN". I'm from the Midwest.
posted by adamrice at 12:16 PM on March 4


Cretan is also, rather obscurely, sometimes pronounced like kree-shun. This is a holdover from the archaic version of the word Cretian, which was pronounced in this way. Naturally, with this pronunciation, nobody would confuse cretin with Cretan.
posted by Emma May Smith at 12:41 PM on March 4 [2 favorites]


That's a good point, and I don't know if I've ever uttered the word, but "Cretian" meets pretty solidly with my instincts, just to prevent confusion with "cretin," which I otherwise pronounce identically to "Cretan."
posted by rhizome at 12:47 PM on March 4


  the second syllable is different too?

yup: one's tin, the other tan.
posted by scruss at 1:17 PM on March 4


> yup: one's tin, the other tan.

That's... extremely idiosyncratic. Not saying you're wrong, whatever a native speaker says is right for them, but it's not a helpful guide for others. I agree with wintersweet:

> The second syllables are identical: both are /tən/ or /tn̩/, depending on how you want to render it (the schwa virtually vanishes).

Count me as another who says them the same way; my background is so varied there's no point trying to figure out where I got it.
posted by languagehat at 2:04 PM on March 4 [2 favorites]


I think that some of you will enjoy reading about received pronunciation.
posted by BrunoLatourFanclub at 2:36 PM on March 4


Voting on the sh-sound and tin and tan.
posted by BlueHorse at 3:26 PM on March 4


To me, they're homophones. Live on the West coast of the US now, raised in the Southeast.
posted by masquesoporfavor at 4:38 PM on March 4 [2 favorites]


Canadian here with CREH-t'n and CREE-t'n.
posted by kch at 4:39 PM on March 4 [2 favorites]


  That's... extremely idiosyncratic. Not saying you're wrong, whatever a native speaker says is right for them, but it's not a helpful guide for others

Buh …? You pronounce the container that baked beans come in (a tin) the same as a light shade of brown (tan)? Think I just gave you the gift of accent: I don't have one, it's you that has the problem with it.
posted by scruss at 4:59 PM on March 4


West coast US lifer, Anglophile, lapsed SNOOT, and I've never heard "krettin" ever, to my knowledge.
posted by rhizome at 5:13 PM on March 4


> You pronounce the container that baked beans come in (a tin) the same as a light shade of brown (tan)?

For many native English speakers, vowels are reduced in unstressed syllables. I think the second syllable of "Cretan" usually has a schwa as the vowel, or possibly the entire second syllable will be reduced to a syllabic /n/. This would make the second syllable of "cretin" and "Cretan" the same.

"Tin" and "tan," as stressed syllables, don't exhibit this reduction.

My hunch is that (if you speak American English) your pronunciation is unusual, but I'm not like an expert on vowel differences in American English dialects or anything. As one data point, Wiktionary offers only the pronunciation with the syllabic /n/.
posted by a mirror and an encyclopedia at 5:23 PM on March 4 [3 favorites]


For many native English speakers, vowels are reduced in unstressed syllables. I think the second syllable of "Cretan" usually has a schwa as the vowel, or possibly the entire second syllable will be reduced to a syllabic /n/. This would make the second syllable of "cretin" and "Cretan" the same.

There's more than one unstressed vowel, but some dialects merge schwa with /i/ in unstressed syllables (Weak Vowel Merger). So for English English speakers the vowel of the second syllable in cretin is a very definite /i/ sound not found in Cretan. Thus for some speakers the vowel quality in both syllables of the two words is different, just as scruss asserts.

It may be hard to believe, in reference to the original question, but not only can people tell cretin and Cretan apart, it's terrifically easy to do so.
posted by Emma May Smith at 6:43 PM on March 4


Is this a real thing

I don't know the book past the quote you quoted, but yeah, treating one of two alternate pronunciations as the correct one for the purpose of trying to make somebody else look dumb and feel small is absolutely a real thing. though in response to being called a cretin to one's face, perhaps a justifiable real thing.

(I mean I take the point of that passage to be A. the one person pronounces it the way they do because they learned it from reading, like their internal monologue says, and so their usage insecurities are easy to exploit. but also B. the other person is searching for a way to one-up the narrator in response to being insulted about their intellect. so, yes, the standard pronunciations of those words sound different, but nobody would treat that other nonstandard but accepted pronunciation of "cretin" as an error unless you were calling them one at the time.

so my response is sort of beside the point, but sort of not.)
posted by queenofbithynia at 7:05 PM on March 4 [1 favorite]


To my ear they're different words and would not be generally mixed up in speech. This passage makes sense to me. The first vowel is pronounced differently.

Cretin is "khre tin", stressing the first syllable. Cretan is "Khree shan" stressing the long e. Some might say "Khree tan", but many Canadians soften that middle constant.

Been a Canadian all my life. Raised in Western Canada, with the better part of decade in Vancouver. I travel all over the country regularly. West of New Brunswick, I don't think that pronunciation would vary much.
posted by bonehead at 7:29 PM on March 4


In standard British English, these two words definitely have distinct pronunciations. No idea about Vancouver though!
posted by pharm at 8:25 AM on March 5 [1 favorite]


Thanks all, especially the Canadians who chimed in (my dad's Canadian but a) from Ontario and b) when I asked him about this he said that he has never had occasion to use either of those words and couldn't help me, heh). This has been super informative.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 10:19 AM on March 5


> Buh …? You pronounce the container that baked beans come in (a tin) the same as a light shade of brown (tan)?

Buh? We're not talking about the words tin and tan, we're talking about the words cretin and Cretan.
posted by languagehat at 3:32 PM on March 5


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