How To Pronounce “Hagiography”

REMEMBER the big spat that erupted between Dr. Lee Wei Ling and the Straits Times slightly over a week ago? The one that climaxed into a sad and sorry sibling feud between a neurologist sister and her Prime Minister brother on, of all days, Sibling Day last Sunday?

Well, it’s all quiet on the island front now, and no one wants to go there anymore. Neither do I, except for a brief pause over one word that emerged in Dr. Lee’s Facebook post—the only bright spot, it seems, amid the rancor, given that firstly, I had never seen the word before, and secondly, it came with the usual lexical challenge: “So, how do I pronounce this word?”

Hagiography, the very word that gave reason for Dr. Lee’s war of words, has three meanings:

hagiography |ˌhæɡiˈɑɡrəfi, ˌheɪɡiˈɑɡrəfi|(n)
• the writing of the lives of saints.
• (derogatory) adulatory writing about another person.
• biography that idealizes its subject.

The root word, hagio, comes from the Greek word hagios for “holy.” Used as a prefix, hagio relates to saints or holiness. And that was precisely what Dr. Lee was trying to get at in her Facebook post: So I leave my readers to judge me fairly, whether I intentionally plagiarized or as a filial daughter I wanted to stop any attempts at hagiography at the first anniversary of my father’s death.

Scanning the entire menu of “hagio”-related words in Oxford, I wonder if Dr. Lee meant hagiolatry rather than hagiography.

hagiolatry |ˌhæɡiˈɑlətri|(n)
the worship of saints.
(derogatory) undue veneration of a famous person.

So how do you exactly pronounce hagiography and hagiolatry? In searching for answers, I learned that one must practice caution when consulting those pronounce-for-you and pronounce-everything Web sites. Two of them I’ve turned to offered two options:

• hair-gee-OR-gruh-fee (with a hard ‘g’ on the second syllable)

• hay-jee-OR-gruh-fee (with a soft ‘g’ on the second syllable, so that the last four syllables sound like geography)

I don’t see a soft ‘g’ (‘jee‘) in the phonetic cues from the various dictionaries I’ve consulted—my go-to MacBook Oxford, Merriam-Webster, Cambridge, and a 1998 hardcopy of The Little Oxford Dictionary.

All of them give me this:
hagiography: hair-gee-OR-gruh-fee (hard ‘g’)

Alternatively, my MacBook Oxford also suggests:
hagiography: hay-gee-OR-gruh-fee (hard ‘g’)

To make things easy, I’d just remember this: hard ‘g’ always, and go for “hair” over “hay.”

So, here goes:

• hagiography: hair-gee-OR-gruh-fee (hard ‘g’ and “hair”)

• hagiolatry: hair-gee-OR-luh-tree (hard ‘g’ and “hair”)


I invite you to write to me at  viv@mywritinghome.com if you have any word ideas you’d like to share.

You might also enjoy:
Chill a Little, Dr. Lee! Let the Nation Honor Your Father.

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