A reader wonders about the American pronunciation of the word mobile:
When Americans refer to the thing that all of us carry around as our personal digital appendage, they rhyme it with “bill.” The rest of the
world (i.e., where I live) pronounce it to rhyme it with “bile.”
I’m not talking about the adjective “mobile,” but the noun “mobile,” short
for “mobile phone.” Does this have to do anything with the gas company
which sounds the same?
The word mobile functions as both an adjective and as a noun:
The mobile technology may be a lot different in terms of the Internet platform, but they basically share a common medium: the Web.
—Americans pronounce the adjective mobile to rhyme with noble.
Sallie bought a darling Winnie-the-Pooh mobile to hang above the baby’s bed.
—Americans pronounce the noun mobile to rhyme with toe-heel (MOH-beel).
The city in Alabama is usually pronounced MOH-beel. Sometimes it is pronounced moh-BEEL.
The petroleum company spells its name Mobil and pronounces it MOH-bil. Its progenitor, Mobilgas, was founded in the 1920s; Americans were already pronouncing mobile to rhyme with noble.
So, when did those wretched Americans start mispronouncing mobile?
British speakers shifted their pronunciation of words ending in -ile from a short vowel sound to a long one. OED lexicographer R. W. Burchfield noted, “The division didn’t become clear-cut until about 1900.”
This is how Charles Elster (The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations) puts it:
… throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, both British and American speakers pronounced -ile either with a short i (as in pill) or an obscure/silent i (as in fossil). For example, the English elocutionist John Walker, whose Critical Pronouncing Dictionary (1791) had a profound influence on both sides of the Atlantic well into the 19th century, favored the short i in nearly all -ile words, including juvenile, mercantile, and puerile, citing only chamomile, infantile, and reconcile as long i exceptions.
In the 20th century, Americans were less consistent in their customary preference than the British were in their newfound preference, and the long i made some inroads in American speech.
In regard to the question that prompted this post, Americans call those “personal digital appendages” neither MOH-biles nor MOH-bils. They call them cell phones.