A reader has called my attention to the changing pronunciation of divisive:
I am very active in politics and frequently watch television programs which feature political topics. One of THE most frustrating—and very common— mispronunciations I hear is with the word divisive. I was taught that it is pronounced with a ‘long i’ on the second syllable—ie: resulting in it having the same, ‘long i’ sound as the word divide.
Many seemingly well-educated and otherwise intelligent people pronounce it with a ‘short i’ sound on the second syllable. I have checked my hard-copy dictionaries, and they all back up my pronunciation of the word. Am I so backward that I missed out on a revolutionary new way to pronounce this word? If not, why do so many people pronounce it incorrectly? Do they believe it makes them appear ‘cool’— or part of an exclusive club—or something?! Do you know when—and why—this trend started?
The reader hasn’t missed any new ruling on how to say divisive. The standard pronunciation is still with a long i in the second syllable: di-VY-siv.
Charles Elster (The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations) devotes two cantankerous pages to the misguided “short-i” divisive, establishing the credentials of the “long-i” pronunciation by citing various dictionaries. He remarks that the first time he noted the nonstandard pronunciation in the context of politics was in 1989 in G. H. W. Bush’s inaugural address. Within fifteen years, “the erroneous pronunciation,” as Elster calls it, had
begun to infect otherwise careful speakers, including Robert Siegel, cohost of NPR’s All Things Considered, who twice said [di-VIH-siv] during an interview that aired on August 30, 2004.
Elster suggests that the short-i pronunciation may have what he labels “the my-pronunciation’s-better-than-yours appeal” for some individuals, but that careful speakers will continue to pronounce the second syllable of divisive with a long i.