Dear Word Detective: Recently the word “heinous” has been turning up on more and more radio and TV newscasts, probably with good reason. Unfortunately the pronunciation of the word is all over the map. I’ve heard “hane-ous,” “heen-ous,” “hine-ous,” and all three with a “-ious” ending. I realize pronunciation isn’t your specialty, but maybe you could tell us something about the word and suggest alternatives for the newscasters who haven’t a clue. — Barney Johnson.
You’re right — “heinous” (defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “hateful, odious; highly criminal or wicked; infamous, atrocious”) seems to be enjoying a grim heyday in the news. A search on Google News produces 2,580 hits (known, by the way, as “Googlits” among Google addicts) in recent news stories. Almost all of them invoke “heinous” in the grave sense the OED suggests (“chiefly characterizing offenses, crimes, sins, and those who commit them”), but I did stumble across one article from an Anchorage, Alaska paper that employed “heinous” to describe a high school tennis team’s 32-year winning streak. Someone up there needs to cut back on the caffeine. “Heinous” does not mean merely “annoying.” Not yet, anyway.
“Heinous” first appeared in print in English in the 14th century, adopted from the Old French “haineus,” from the verb “hair,” meaning “to hate.” A bit further back we find the Germanic root “khatis,” which also gave us our English word “hate.”
It is true that I would not count myself as a pronunciation expert. For one thing, you apparently have to go by three names (“Rupert Frothington Gotrox”) to be one these days, and I’ve always sensed that people who bill themselves in triplicate are trying too hard. But the other reason I don’t want the gig is that pronunciation varies with geography, class, social tradition and many other factors, so proclaiming with certainty a single correct form is a losing proposition.
Charles Harrington Ulster (“The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations”) has, however, made a career of pronouncing (yuk yuk) this sort of judgment, and he mandates the “HAY-nis” version as “the only acceptable pronunciation.” Personally, I go with more of an “us” sound for the second syllable, but we do agree that the word has only two syllables, making “hay-nee-us” as hard to accept as “realtor” rendered as “real-a-tor.” However, and this will probably drive Chuck right over the edge, the standard pronunciation of “heinous” may well change someday. After all, how do you pronounce “Worcestershire”?