In my recent column on Stephen Colbert’s coinage of “truthiness,” I wrote that the title of Charles Seife’s new book, “Proofiness,” is “very much a homage to Colbert.” Laura Kozin e-mails: "My brain stubbed its toe on this. I thought we pronounced it ‘an (h)omage.’ Did I miss a change to spoken ‘h’? Is it now ‘a herb garden’ as well?” Steve Penn e-mails: “Your last column indicated that you pronounce homage with the ‘h.’ Me too. A few years ago, on the radio, I was jolted to hear this word pronounced oh-MAZH. A real stomach-turner. Since then, I've heard this pronunciation fairly frequently on the radio and occasionally on television. Are the broadcast folks cooking up a new pronunciation, or do they intend some word other than homage?”
The New York Times style guide does not specifically address the word homage, and in such matters the copy desk typically turns to Webster’s New World Dictionary for guidance. As with other leading American dictionaries, Webster’s New World currently recognizes two equally accepted pronunciations of the word: either HOM-ij or OM-ij. Since the pronunciation with “h” is listed first, that would favor “a homage” over “an homage.” (The Times has not been terribly consistent on this score, however. Since 2001, “a homage” has appeared in the paper 500 times, but “an homage” has appeared 407 times.)
While most U.S. dictionaries list HOM-ij first, one exception is Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. Joshua S. Guenter, Merriam-Webster’s pronunciation editor, explained to me that prior to the Tenth Edition of the dictionary in 1993, the pronunciation of homage was given with the initial “h” in parentheses, “indicating the two variants were about equally common.” Starting with the Tenth, they began giving a slight edge to OM-ij. “Our citation files do show the ‘h’-less variant to be more common than the ‘h’-ful one, though not by a huge degree,” Guenter said.
Dropping the “h” sound from homage appears to be gathering steam in American speech, and other dictionaries will no doubt begin to reflect this move. This actually represents a return to a much older pronunciation pattern. As with many other imports from Norman French into Middle English, the initial “h” was not originally pronounced in homage. Eventually, so-called spelling pronunciation introduced the “h” sound to words like habit, host, hospital and human. Some words resisted the extra puff of aspiration, like heir, honest, honor and hour. Still others took on the “h” only in certain dialects: herb, for instance, stayed unaspirated in American pronunciation while it gained the “h” sound in British English. Starting around the eighteenth century, homage joined the “h”-ful crowd.
The shifting status of homage is further muddied by the modish French-influenced version, oh-MAZH. Strictly speaking, that pronunciation ought to be limited to artistic contexts where the French word hommage has been reintroduced into English as a term for a work that respectfully emulates that of another artist. Something similar happened with the word auteur, which cinephiles borrowed from French to refer to directors with distinctive styles, even though the word had already entered the lexicon centuries ago as author.
The oh-MAZH pronunciation is gaining a foothold beyond the arts world, and for some that’s a cause for alarm. In his book “The Accidents of Style,” Charles Harrington Elster calls this a “preposterous de-Anglicization” that is “becoming fashionable among the literati.” Elster had previously complained that good old HOM-ij was losing out to OM-ij “in havens for the better-educated like National Public Radio,” and for defenders of the “h” pronunciation oh-MAZH just adds insult to injury.
A check of NPR’s audio archives corroborates Elster’s hunch. Listening to 10 recent uses of the word homage by on-the-air personalities, I found an even split: five for oh-MAZH and five for OM-ij, with the latter generally reserved for the “respect” meaning, as in pay homage. The HOM-ij pronunciation, meanwhile, seems to be losing out to its trendier h-less rivals, despite the protestations of traditionalists. And since it’s a fight of two against one, “a homage” may, over time, become increasingly rare.