The word niche has been popping up everywhere in my life lately. Home, school, every damn book and periodical I’ve read in the past couple weeks. Perhaps you also experience word phenomena like this in your life from time to time?
What’s really been bugging me, however, is the pronunciation of the word. I don’t recall growing up hearing it one way or the other, and dictionaries include multiple ways of pronunciation: neesh, nitch, nish. For the most part, I say neesh, though I’m pretty sure I’ve said nitch and nish in the past—probably when repeating the word back to someone in conversation.
This past week, my marketing professor used the word multiple times while referring to niche markets, and she pronounces it nitch. The pronunciation really started grating on my nerves, not unlike times when Cincinnatians say pin instead of pen and when Utahns say fill instead of feel. (I’m aware that I have a little xeno-dialectic snobbery problem.)
I polled my Twitter followers, most of whom are American, to find out whether they say nitch or neesh. The results are:
- 6 say nitch
- 5 say neesh
- 2 are bilingual and say neesh in French but say nitch in English
- 2 avoid saying the word at all costs because of this confusion
So though the results lean toward nitch, the sample is not really large enough to reach a solid conclusion.
But it made me think about this word and why pronouncing it nitch bothers me. I’m not bothered by the sound—I don’t have an issue with the words which, witch, hitch, kitsch, pitch, stitch, or bitch—so what’s the big deal?
I think I found the root of my problem by researching the etymology of the word. Not surprisingly, it is derived from the French word nicher, which is pronounced nee-shay and means to nest. Which means that neesh is closer in pronunciation to the original word than nitch. I know some French, so I’m guessing my preference stems from that.
Other derived-from-French words that are spelled with a ch in English but are pronounced with a soft sh sound include quiche, cache, and microfiche. If you mispronounce those words, you might inadvertently say things like “Real men don’t eat kitsch.”
And that just doesn’t make much sense, since “real men” will eat pretty much anything.
So keep all of this in mind if pronouncing the word niche has previously caused you stress or confusion. Say it either way—I’m not going to start proselytizing that neesh is the only pronunciation because clearly nitch has its own little niche in English.
However, if your speech also includes words like exspecially, nuculer, or supposably, I will not feel bad about sticking my linguistic lessons all up in your face.