Pronouncing ‘jojoba’
September 26, 2019 5:39 PM   Subscribe

When I was at the dermatologist, I asked about jojoba oil and pronounced both the j’s like j’s, like ‘JoeJonas.’ I’d never heard anyone say ‘jojoba’ aloud before. The doctor said, “I think it’s ‘ho ho ba..” and seemed embarrassed for me. Am I some kind of idiot?

How would you naturally pronounce ‘jojoba’ if you were reading it for the first time? You don’t say ‘hooniper’ for juniper. What is this pronunciation rule? How do you know it’s not like ‘Jagermeister’ and ‘yo yo ba’ instead?
posted by dianeF to Writing & Language (52 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Jojoba like jujubes. Ho ho ba, forsooth.
posted by coppermoss at 5:45 PM on September 26 [1 favorite]

Jojoba comes from the Southwest, so I would assume it was a name that was originally in Spanish, where the J's sound like H does in English at the start of words.

That said, maybe you didn't know that, and that's OK. You're an English speaker, and J makes a juh sound. Not knowing something does not equal stupid, it's just something you never heard before. It's actually very common not to know how to pronounce a word-- I still think how you're supposed to say "hegemony" sounds weird and wrong.

(I assumed Jagermeister was Yaygermeister. Apparently I'm wrong.)
posted by blnkfrnk at 5:46 PM on September 26 [9 favorites]

It is ho-ho-ba. I'm pretty sure I found out by being called out about it by someone, same as you. I've had that problem with many words, it's the lot in life of people who read enough that they've seen more words written than they've heard pronounced. My husband has experienced the same. Once in a while a book or magazine article will set me straight from the get-go by helpfully putting the pronunciation of a difficult word in parentheses.

It is possible that the first time I heard jojoba pronounced was years ago, when there used to be a shampoo commercial on TV
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 5:46 PM on September 26 [12 favorites]

I’ve only ever heard it pronounced ho-ho-ba. I think I did think it had j-sounds when I first read it as a kid, but a friend at camp pronounced it with the h sound when I was around ten so I got set straight pretty young.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 5:47 PM on September 26

Jojoba like jujubes

Hoo-hoo-bees? Really?
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 5:48 PM on September 26 [46 favorites]

Unless you know the origin of the word, I don’t think you can know the pronunciation? Josie is one thing, José is the other, Jesus could go either way.

Having said that, coppermoss is a monster and I am now fully committed to the the idea that jujubes are pronounced “hoo-hoobz”.
posted by mhoye at 5:48 PM on September 26 [23 favorites]

“Huh-hoba” is closer to correct (click the speaker icon), but pronouncing it with a hard J seems perfectly plausible. I don’t think there’s anything embarrassing about guessing about the pronunciation.

It comes from Aztec via Spanish. In Spanish Js are pronounced like Hs.
posted by danielparks at 5:48 PM on September 26 [6 favorites]

(I assumed Jagermeister was Yaygermeister. Apparently I'm wrong.)

That's how I and everyone I know pronounces it. But I grew up in WI with lots of people of German descent and knew people named Jaeger. I've never heard it pronounced with a juh sound.
posted by acidnova at 5:51 PM on September 26 [32 favorites]

You're not an idiot. J is a crazy letter. The various pronunciations reflect the language of origin of the word. In this case, "jojoba" seems to enter English via Spanish, where "j" is usually pronounced like an English "h". "Jagermeister" enters English via German, where "j" is usually pronounced like an English "y".

Your dermatologist may have just felt embarrassed to be correcting you, but wanted you to know the correct pronunciation for future use. I have vitiligo, and the first time I went to a doctor about it I asked if I had"vih-TILL-ih-go," and the doctor awkwardly let me know it's pronounced "vih-till-EYE-go", which was a little embarrassing for both of us, but I'm glad to know the proper pronunciation so I know what to ask doctors about in the future.
posted by biogeo at 5:53 PM on September 26 [19 favorites]

You are not some kind of idiot. It's not exactly a word that easily reads like it comes from Spanish to an English speaker, and that's also because there aren't that many words English speakers encounter on a regular basis that are from Spanish by way of Oʼodham
posted by General Malaise at 5:55 PM on September 26 [4 favorites]

I guess I've mentally pronounced the j's the way you did when I've seen the word, without ever thinking about it much or hearing anyone talk about it. But it doesn't surprise me to learn it's ho ho ba. Apparently the plant is from the desert southwest, so jojoba is presumably a Spanish word and j is pronounced like h in Spanish. It's like jalapeno or javelina. You wouldn't expect it to be a y sound like Jagermeister because it's not a German word like Jagermeister is. But when words from another language get adopted into English anything can happen. We don't pronounce Mexico or Los Angeles or patio the way Spanish speakers do. There's no way you can tell by looking at a word how much its common pronunciation by English speakers has drifted from the pronunciation in the original language.
posted by Redstart at 5:56 PM on September 26 [3 favorites]

There used to be a ton of shampoos with that ingredient in it and the television commercials all said something like ho-ho-bah, so that is how I say it.
posted by jessamyn at 5:59 PM on September 26 [5 favorites]

*shrugs* Then you and me both because that's how I've been mentally pronouncing it, and I do know some Spanish too, but I just never thought about the origin of the plant.

I read somewhere that you shouldn't be embarrassed by mispronouncing things you've only read, because it shows that you're reading expansively. :-) I do that frequently, so I've taken that to heart.
posted by unannihilated at 6:05 PM on September 26 [9 favorites]

Btw, you aren't an idiot.

I love the tweet that is like: never make fun of someone for mispronouncing a word, it means they learned it FROM READING.
posted by athirstforsalt at 6:06 PM on September 26 [49 favorites]

I remember an ad on TV that specifically addressed this - a musical number that ended with someome saying "What is this Jo-jo-ba" and someone else songsplaining to them that it's "hohoba" and them saying "well why don't they spell it that way".

I can only find this ad in a weird French version from Quebec. My recollection is the English version was pretty much the same.
posted by ManInSuit at 6:09 PM on September 26 [2 favorites]

Learn 'sidereal' now, before you realise you've only ever read it in books and then say it out loud in front of a group of people. Ask me how I know.
posted by some little punk in a rocket at 6:21 PM on September 26 [11 favorites]

There's an XKCD comic about taking a positive and non-shamey attitude toward people who happen to not know a fact yet. Maybe it will make you feel better about not encountering the pronunciation of the word until now?
posted by space snail at 6:23 PM on September 26 [9 favorites]

Having a word in your reading but not your speaking vocabulary is no shame. I would guess that your doctor was just stating what he believed to be the case, and the embarrassment came from you. If not, he’s an uneducated jerk.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 6:24 PM on September 26 [2 favorites]

Am I some kind of idiot?


Speaking of sidereal, I literally learned that pronunciation from an audiobook last week. Audiobooks FTW!

(It’s sigh-DEER-ee-uhl for anyone wondering.)
posted by ocherdraco at 6:29 PM on September 26 [9 favorites]

I'm just so glad I've never said "javelina" out loud. I'm pretty sure. I hope not.
posted by bricoleur at 6:49 PM on September 26 [4 favorites]

huh ho ba, which we found out siri/alexa translate as "hobo oil", but there's no reason to expect you to know that. Don't be embarrassed.
posted by Lyn Never at 6:50 PM on September 26 [2 favorites]

"Having a word in your reading but not your speaking vocabulary is no shame."

One day when I was in 9th grade, I made a joke to my friends that involved the word dildo, and my mother overheard and said "Oh, is that how you pronounce that?!" Of course I was mortified. But her explanation was "That's a reading word, not a speaking word."

Leaving aside the issue of WHAT THE HELL was my mother READING when I was in high school ... I've kept that phrase with me throughout my life, and it comes in handy. Rhetoric and rhetorical were what tripped me up.
posted by mccxxiii at 6:54 PM on September 26 [8 favorites]

I am a person who worries a lot about mispronouncing words. I know I should do something about that anxiety, but instead I just learn how to pronounce words correctly. My life has greatly improved since finding howjsay.

I read somewhere that of all the word pronunciation websites, it is the best because the speakers are professional linguists and the pronunciations are always rigorously correct. Also, if there are alternate national variants of words (British vs American, for example) they will let you know that. Also, if you by chance stumble on a word that they haven't articulated yet, it goes into a file. Enough instances of that, and it goes to the top of their list for the words they are continuously adding.

Warning-- don't show it to middle school kids or adults with similar sensibilities, because it does have all the cuss words faithfully pronounced by plummy British gentlemen. I'm a former junior high school teacher-- ask me how I know this.

And yes, I know it is 2019 and I should be more kind and accepting in how I judge people, but in this case, the person I am judging is myself, and I choose the 1819 solution of just fixing the problem.

Really, it's one easy, free, add-supported website ( you can access from anywhere. I recommend it every time the subject of pronunciation fear come up. And of course, just to keep it relevant to the question, here is the entry for jojoba.
posted by seasparrow at 6:56 PM on September 26 [15 favorites]

If it makes you feel better, I was using the word "epitome" in conversation for a while before I learned how to pronounce it.

At least I didn't do it in front of students like Professor Mosby over here.
posted by The Pluto Gangsta at 7:03 PM on September 26 [3 favorites]

Thank you guys so much for all your answers! You’ve made me feel like less of an idiot and it makes much more sense to think of it like ‘jalapeño.’

Gilgamesh: My dermatologist and I hate each other, and she felt so sorry for me when I said ‘joejoeba,’ I swear she liked me for a second.

I love how people keep commenting, I’ll check back in tomorrow. Thanks again!
posted by dianeF at 7:09 PM on September 26 [4 favorites]

Well I just learned jojoba, javelina, vitiligo, and sidereal, and I am not an idiot. I've been noticing recently that there are A LOT of words I have never heard spoken, only read, and since I'm not sure of the pronunciation I'm afraid to use them in conversation. I don't run across many words I don't know (except for Edmund Crispin's books for some reason). So I'm starting a vocab list of the words I have to look up, I guess I will be adding words I don't know how to pronounce also. (That only works if you know you don't know how to pronounce it though--i didn't know I was pronouncing jojoba wrong in my head so I would have been right there with you). I will be keeping a special eye out for 'j' words!
posted by lemonade at 7:14 PM on September 26 [2 favorites]

And we should all be glad that we did not learn the correct pronunciation of La Jolla, California, the way my sister did: by loudly welcoming a group of high school students from that fair city to the American Embassy in Paris. Imagine a college student, Alabama accent still somewhat apparent, saying it exactly as it is written, and discovering that it is pronounced “la hoya” after said high school students burst into uproarious laughter.
posted by ocherdraco at 7:20 PM on September 26 [6 favorites]

See here for some MetaTalk fun about this problem.

English orthography is the pits.
posted by nat at 7:22 PM on September 26 [1 favorite]

I would have said JoJoba (like JoeJonas—lol!). You know how I know? Because I thought “cojones” was pronounced “co-jones.”
posted by sallybrown at 7:57 PM on September 26 [6 favorites]

Oh god! "Dour" does not rhyme with "sour." I learned this the hard way when reading a passage from a history book to my middle child's classmates. Their teacher corrected me. That was fun.
posted by S'Tella Fabula at 8:29 PM on September 26 [1 favorite]

I feel like it requires a fair amount of background knowledge to make an educated guess about the pronunciation of a term like jojoba oil, i.e., do you know what jojoba even is (animal, vegetable or mineral?), if you know it's from a plant, do you know where the plant is native to, do you know what languages are spoken there, do you know anything about those languages, etc. So don't feel dumb! That's a lot of context! I'd managed to osmose somehow--quite possibly via ad copy--that jojoba is a plant from the desert southwest, so being from southern California, I assumed the word was derived from Spanish and went with the Spanish pronunciation.

And hey, even if you know all that, you still might be wrong, especially if you don't speak Spanish: after all, it's not always obvious which words maintain their Spanish pronunciation and which don't. Like most people say Los Angeles with the same j as in angel, but the above-mentioned La Jolla is pronounced la hoya by everybody in the area.
posted by yasaman at 8:38 PM on September 26 [3 favorites]

I just looked up dour and it gave two pronunciations but the second one matched sour. I’ve always pronounced them the same! Dour sour flower.
posted by amanda at 9:05 PM on September 26 [12 favorites]

the first time I went to a doctor about it I asked if I had"vih-TILL-ih-go," and the doctor awkwardly let me know it's pronounced "vih-till-EYE-go",

I did not know that.

My mother has a story about this word she'd learned from a book that she pronounced as myzled. Written? Misled. (And I'm fascinated that apple wanted to autocorrect myzled as misled.)

posted by leahwrenn at 11:08 PM on September 26 [1 favorite] (sorry on my phone)
These two made jojoba a household name a few years back.
posted by sconbie at 1:56 AM on September 27 [1 favorite]

It is indeed pronounced ho-ho-ba.

As for the "embarrassed for you" bit - that's the part of this story I'm looking at more. On the one hand, "jojoba" isn't an uncommon word - in certain circles. So in those circles, it would have come up often enough for someone who didn't know the word to have heard people referring to it often enough to get that "okay, maybe this is how to spell that word everyone's been saying."

But the key there is in certain circles. Jojoba oil is used for skin often enough that it would come up a lot there - but you personally are not a dermatologist and likely are not a cosmetologist. So it makes sense for you not to have encountered that word before. And so what I'm seeing is someone who was a little judgey at you for not having encountered a word before, and that doesn't speak well of your dermatologist, frankly.

As to how to handle this - you can do what I did when I made a similar mistake in a record shop when I saw a specific CD behind the counter and asked the clerk to hand me "that Bruce Cock-burn CD behind you". He just smirked at me a little bit and said "it's pronounced Co-burn, actually," when he handed it to me. And yeah, I was embarrassed - for like three minutes, and then decided "well, fuck him, I didn't know" as I was walking home.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:10 AM on September 27 [1 favorite]

For the larger perspective: mis-pronunciation-shaming (for that's what it is, no matter whether someone laughs out loud or, like in your case, acts embarrassed on your behalf) is likely most of all caused by an individual's residues of unresolved childhood humiliations. It's not about the word. It's not about you. It's about the person who is laughing or blushing or scoffing, who likely is triggered into re-feeling their older sibling's mirth when they read the word "orange" off the page for the first time (or something of the kind). Depending on their disposition, they either pay back (to you), or are mortified some more (using you to siphon off their mortification). Don't even begin to play that game for them.
My typical reaction for when I've had my coffee and am rested would be "ahwell, happens to the best of us" and move on. In a cranky mood and if I don't like the person in front of me, I might go "yeah whatever" or "says who" or something along those lines.

[And Jägermeister is pronounced yea-gur-maj-stur with emphases on yea and maj.]
posted by Namlit at 4:27 AM on September 27 [1 favorite]

...I made a similar mistake in a record shop when I saw a specific CD behind the counter and asked the clerk to hand me "that Bruce Cock-burn CD behind you". He just smirked at me a little bit and said "it's pronounced Co-burn, actually," when he handed it to me. And yeah, I was embarrassed - for like three minutes, and then decided "well, fuck him, I didn't know" as I was walking home.
posted by EmpressCallipygos

My father's mother was a Cockburn. The name is lowland Scots/Northumberland English. The first part Cock means a rooster and we all know how to pronounce that word, and the second half Burn cames from the Gaelic Burna which means a stream. Needless to say the concept of a cock-stream can be taken in ways that cause people to snigger.

So sometime in the eighteen hundreds Hyacinth Bucket took to to telling people the name was originally French and is pronounced Buh-kay.... I mean, oops, wrong anecdote... That is, up-and-coming wannabe higher status Victorians especially those actually named Cockburn started deliberately mangling the pronunciation so they didn't have to say the word Cock. They also took to vigilantly calling a barnyard cock a rooster. Many of those who called themselves Mumble-burn ended up with it spelt Coburn or some variation on that, but many more, even within sibling groups desperately trying to leave the coarseness of the barnyard, simply snorted and spelled and pronounced it the obvious original way. This means that when you encounter the name Cockburn you have absolutely no way to guess how it is pronounced unless you are referring to someone like Admiral Sir George Cockburn, who lived before the era when embarrassed Victorian renamed chicken breast white meat and taught young "ladies" always to sit with their knees together and they legs crossed below the knee lest they cause some coarse male to have prurient thoughts.

The word cock offers difficulties to those who would alter the vowel sound just a wee bit to make it more acceptable. Change it to Cack and everyone with any connection to the Dutch or older English sniggers even more, as the word Cack means shit, as in the baby-talk word Ca-ca. No winning with that name.
posted by Jane the Brown at 5:11 AM on September 27 [14 favorites]

I wasn't trying to be a smartass, I've only ever heard it pronounced with the d͡ʒ sound before.
posted by coppermoss at 5:23 AM on September 27 [1 favorite]

I went to buy some in GNC once, meekly asked for Joe-Joe-Bah oil and the snotty clerk said, "yo-HO-bah?" with such derision I was mortified and walked out. (another reason why retail is dying, I'm sure) Now I hope that sometime after that, someone did the same to him and says, "ho-HO-bah?"

"Dour" does not rhyme with "sour."
Ye gods! Literally nobody in my life has pronounced this correctly!
posted by kimberussell at 6:11 AM on September 27 [2 favorites]

Audiobooks have been both a revelation and a source of frustration for this - voice actors do mispronounce words fairly often!
posted by Pax at 6:19 AM on September 27 [2 favorites]

Guys, dour can be pronounced to rhyme with sour, that's legit.

/word geek
posted by desuetude at 7:48 AM on September 27 [7 favorites]

Thank you guys for these! I feel supported and more informed. I think my favorite is ‘myzled’ for misled. I tried to select informative ones above, but have given you all best answer in my heart.
posted by dianeF at 8:31 AM on September 27 [2 favorites]

The only wrong way to pronounce a word is to do so in a way nobody understands what you mean. If they understand you, demonstrably it is a fine way to pronounce something. Fuck anyone who makes fun on pronunciation. Unless you're a class specifically about learning pronunciation of words and languages, it doesn't matter. If it's that important to pronounce correctly, civilization should have chosen to spell the word in such a way that it was intuitive to do so, otherwise they can Deal With It.
posted by GoblinHoney at 8:35 AM on September 27 [1 favorite]

Ye gods! Literally nobody in my life has pronounced this correctly!

If this wasn't dry sarcasm, it should be! When everybody says something the "wrong" way, the wrong way is right -- the ultimate authority on language is the mass of speakers (who else?).
posted by aws17576 at 10:07 AM on September 27 [1 favorite]

your dermatologist looked embarrassed because correcting someone is awkward, not because she was "embarrassed for you" or was handling things badly or was judging you.

Someone mispronounces a word: you have to decide if you will help them out by telling them the correct pronunciation, or spare yourself the trouble. She decided to take the trouble to do you that small kindness. No biggie.

It is extremely no big deal to not know how to pronounce "jojoba" before someone tells you how. You know who spends a lot of time talking about jojoba? Skin care professionals and jojoba farmers. Maybe the folks who work at the jojoba processing plant. Jojoba fetishists, perhaps. If you're not in one of those categories, it's nothing to worry about.
posted by fingersandtoes at 11:43 AM on September 27 [5 favorites]

Metafilter: Jojoba fetishists, perhaps.
posted by seasparrow at 12:21 PM on September 27 [1 favorite]

I’m still reading it in my head as “joe-joe” because while I vaguely recall hearing it pronounced differently, I have had so few occasions (maybe never) to say or hear said that word out loud that it’s stuck.

And if dour rhymes with floor or sewer (the street sanitation thing) then I’ll surely pronounce that in a very affected way as though from displaced English gentry.
posted by amanda at 12:23 PM on September 27 [1 favorite]

When I was a kid I was at the library asking the librarian about a book with “ciao” in the title. Of course I pronounced it “kee-ah-oh.” The librarian casually said, “Oh, you mean [ciao pronounced properly]?” I was so embarrassed and I still have that memory more than 20 years later, though I’m no longer ashamed of it.

I think the good thing about it is, I know how it feels to be corrected on pronunciation and I will forever be kind (and casual) if I ever need to do it myself!

And btw I’ve run into many instances where people have pronounced it “joe-joe-bah,” it is not at all a rare thing!
posted by sweetpotato at 2:23 PM on September 27 [1 favorite]

Trivia: Just found out. Bruce Cockburn pronounces his name Co-burn. The record store clerk was correct. However Bruce Cockburn's mother and father and siblings... do NOT pronounce it that way.
posted by Jane the Brown at 3:01 PM on September 27

You're not an idiot. It was only in the last few years that I learned the word segue is pronounced "segway" and not "seg".
posted by essexjan at 3:10 PM on September 27 [1 favorite]

If I may admit something, I've never even heard of the word jojoba until this thread.
posted by acidnova at 3:57 PM on September 27 [2 favorites]

Jojoba came into English by way of Spanish. They picked it up from one of the Uto-Aztecan languages of northern Mexico. For example, in the Tohono O'odham language of Arizona and northern Sonora the word is "hohowai", pronounced basically as it looks in English, with stress on the first syllable. (In some Piman dialects and historically, the 'w' sound is/was more like the b/v of Spanish.) In Spanish and English the stress is on the second syllable (the more natural stress position in Spanish).
posted by Creosote at 5:27 PM on September 27 [2 favorites]

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