Clostridium difficile – again


With this “superbug” back in the news, it seems time to revisit the subject of its pronunciation.

The name contains two Latin words, and as Latin, the second word should be pronounced with four syllables, and stressed on the second. The official BBC line however is to pronounce the second word as if it was French, but with the stress on the first syllable: DIFF-iss-il, and the Oxford BBC Guide to Pronunciation goes on to say “This pronunciation is in line with the usage of the various microbiology and infection control experts the BBC has consulted. Medical Latin is commonly anglicized.” We are then referred to the separate entry for “Latin”. However, nowhere in the entry for Latin is the case of C. diff. (to give it its common abbreviation) dealt with. There is never any suggestion that the syllable structure of Latin can be ignored in favour of a false French analogy.

Many Classical names end in -e, and in English this e is pronounced: Persephone, Penelope, Andromache to name but three. In French, the final -e is invariably silent: Perséphone (rhymes with téléphone), Pénélope (rhymes with envelope), Andromaque. Are we now going to follow suit? The same is true of numerous vocabulary words: facsimile and anemone are two of those most often met with.

I also take issue with the statement that DIFF-iss-il is the pronunciation used by all experts: a search on Google for ‘”clostridium difficile” + pronunciation’ brought up 661 hits, indicating that there has been a lot of controversy about it. The entry in Wikipedia has an audio file with di-FISS-il as the “commonly mistaken” pronunciation, with di-FISS-ill-i (but in IPA transcription) as the alternative ‘correct’ one. Other sites give di-fi-SEEL as the ‘usual’ pronunciation.

Clearly this is a pronunciation that has caused problems throughout the English-speaking world. As the BBC is looked up to as the standard bearer, it would be better if the Pronunciation Unit admitted that this was a popularisation too far, and recommended that the newsreaders go over to a pronunciation that no-one can argue with: di-FISS-ill-i.

Later: support for this view was given by Guy Keleny in the “Errors & Omissions” column of the “Independent” newspaper on Saturday 20 October 2007: “I like each language to sound like itself. Just as I like English to sound like English and French to sound like French, so I like Latin to sound like Latin.”


  1. As it happens I heard a French speaker use the term Clostridium difficile in a lecture in French a couple of weeks ago. She did not pronounce “difficile” like the French word spelled in the same way but followed normal French conventions for pronouncing Latin, with stress on the second syllable and a clearly enunciated final é. A sample of 1 is not evidence, of course, but it did make me wonder why we should use a mock-French pronunciation in English if French people don’t use one in French.

  2. The comment from Athel Cornish-Bowden is consistent with the way I have always pronounced the final ‘e’ (assuming that his ‘é’ is pronounced as ‘ay’, as in the French word ‘entrée’). This is the way I was taught to pronounce the final ‘e’ by my Latin teacher 50 years ago. I have little recollection of the language but do recall him using the phrase ‘minime vero’ (is that ‘no, indeed’?), pronouncing the ‘e’ as ‘ay’. The school psalm ended with ’in nomine patri…etc.’, again with the ‘e’ pronounced as ‘ay’. The Latin teacher was very, very old and I believe he knew some ancient Romans personally, so I expect that he was correct.

  3. I hate to b. diff., but why should the false analogy be with French rather than Italian, which would satisfy almost everyone?

  4. Nigel – because most people in Britain have learned a little French at school, while most have not learned any Italian.

  5. Roger: Minime vero is literally ‘a little bit true’, but idiomatically ‘not at all’, ‘absolutely not’; it’s the standard way of emphatically saying “no”.

  6. In addition to Latin pronunciation requiring sounding of the final “e” of “difficile”, as it was taught to me in Britain it also requires the use of a hard “c” even before “i”. “Cicero”, for example is pronounced “kikero”, not “sissero”. I believe this would not be true of the Latin taught in some other European countries, where the pronunciation would be as in Italian, roughly “ch”.

  7. Dave –
    I’ve dealt with this point here

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