Martin Ball writes: “Did anyone hear Jonathan (I think rather than David) Dimbleby pronounce ebola as /ˈɛbÉ™lÉ™/ on Radio 4 the other day?
Is this pronunciation somehow nearer to that of West African languages?”

I didn’t hear Jonathan Dimbleby say this, but as I recall from the ever more distant past, the recommendation the Pronunciation Unit used to make for the river after which the virus is named is /ˈɛbÉ™lÉ™/. The river does not feature in the Lippincott-Columbia Gazetteer – a gazetteer nearly as big as the Webster 3rd International Dictionary, but it is in Webster’s New Geographical Dictionary, with this same pronunciation – perhaps the source of the BBC recommendation. On the other hand, I see that the Oxford BBC Guide to Pron. gives /i:ˈbəʊlÉ™/, ee-boh-luh, for the virus, which might explain why, when she has to say “suffering from Ebola”, Diana Speed (Radio 4 newsreader) appears to be saying /ˈi:ˈbəʊlÉ™/, as if it was two words, like e. coli /ˈi: ˈkəʊlaɪ/. The pronunciation I’m hearing most is /iˈbəʊlÉ™/, and when Diana has the phrase “Ebola virus”, she reverts to this pronunciation. I suppose the new style BBC Modified Spelling would be ‘i-boh-luh’. In old style, that would be ‘Ä•bōlă’ – with an acute accent above the ‘ō’ to mark the stressed vowel.

The newspapers seem unable to decide whether the name should carry an initial upper case letter or not. Obviously the name of the river does, but I don’t think the disease needs one – no one is remembering the connexion between the river and the disease, and I suspect that most people outside West Africa are unaware of the river’s existence.

As to the pronunciation in West African languages, we need an expert. Webster probably took its pronunciation from the colonial power, which would mean a French-style interpretation, re-interpreted into English as having initial stress (cf the anglicization of ‘Pompidou’ or ‘Mitterrand’).

PS I’ve now (2 November) heard from Martha Figueroa-Clark at the BBC, and she confirms that the recommendation is ‘ee-boh-luh’, or alternatively written ‘eebōlă’ – with an acute accent above the ‘ō’ .


  1. I pronounce it with the first syllable stressed: /ˈɛbÉ™lÉ™/ or ‘E-bo-la.
    This is how it is pronounced in most European countries.


  2. Steve – thanks for your comment.

  3. Via Wikipedia, I found the following:

    “The Congolese river Ebola is called, in the local Ngbandi language, the Legbala, which means ‘white water’, giving a former French name l’Eau blanche. The French name Ebola is an adaptation of Legbala. I have seen it spelt in French with an acute accent on the initial, though this seems to be unwarranted. ”


  4. dw – thanks for going to Wikipedia for us. As initial /e/ in French is often written without the acute accent when capitalized, it’s not surprising that “Ebola” or “Ébola” are alternatives. The fact that this is a French adaptation (what would formerly have been called by many people a ‘corruption’) means that its pronunciation in Ngbandi becomes irrelevant for English purposes.

  5. For what it’s worth, it’s always “ébola” in Spanish — the accent in this case, of course, being a stress-marker.

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