Since coming to Boston College, I have had the delight of meeting new people from different walks of life. BC values diversity and community as driving forces of social life, especially among incoming freshmen. That being said, there is one small difference between students on campus that I absolutely cannot stand. And that is the pronunciation of the word “bagel.”
There are, to my surprise, multiple ways to say this word. The first is bagel, as in, “BAY-gull.” The second is sacrilege and sounds like “BAG-el.” Disgusting.
Upon my first hearing of this discrepancy, I immediately rushed to my friends from New York, as I’m from New Jersey, and the only thing we have going for us is our claim to bagel fame. After hyper-ventilating for a few minutes, I explained through gasps of air how some of our Massachusetts counterparts pronounced such a sacred word. Even for a state rooted in revolution, this is treasonous.
Boston native James Kenneally, MCAS ’24, claimed “It’s BAG-el for two reasons. One: The word is bagel and bag is in bagel. And then two: That’s just the way I grew up. My mom says it the same way.”
But this argument doesn’t hold water. Under this same logic, I could say that because bread has the word “read” in it, it should be pronounced as “breed.” The result of this thinking would be the complete disintegration of the English language.
Thankfully, in my experience, the majority of people pronounce bagel the right way, regardless of their home state. Oregon native Spencer Barnett, MCAS ’24, disagreed with Kenneally: “I say BAY-gull. I don’t know what he’s talking about.”
If anything, this pronunciation battle should boil down to “bye-gel” and “bay-gull.” According to Smithsonian Magazine, bagels were first created in Eastern Europe, and mentions of ring-shaped bread date back to as early as 1394. The word bagel itself comes from the Yiddish word “beigel” (pronounced like “bye-gel”), which was later anglicized to “bagel” when immigrants introduced the food to the United States during the 20th century.
So traditionally speaking, the proper pronunciation would be “bye-gel.” But even some Yiddish speakers, such as Rabbi Julian Sinclair, use the newer pronunciation. “I use the latter pronunciation and I’m not about to change,” Sinclair wrote in The Jewish Chronicle, referring to “bay-gull.”
The “bag-el” pronunciation, on the other hand, can be traced to a phenomenon called the Northern Cities Vowel Shift, according to the public radio show A Way With Words. In this shift, “some of the vowels are changing their sounds very rapidly for some speakers of the language,” podcast host Grant Barrett says. “Bag-el pronouncers” primarily populate northern and western states along with pockets of cities within the United States.
This vowel shift, according to linguist Bill Labov, is a relatively new development in the English language. And its product, “bag-el,” is a detriment to the history of the bagel, completely abandoning the original pronunciation of the word.
“Bay-gull” is the Goldi-locks of the word’s pronunciation. It references bagels’ Eastern European roots while also maintaining the adaptations both the baked good, and the word itself, have made over time. One thing’s for certain: It’s definitely not “bag-el.”
Featured Graphic by Ally Mozeliak / Heights Editor