Dais—A Special Word Often Mispronounced

Queen Elizabeth II reviewing troops from a dais in 1946. (Public Domain photo)

Acquiring vocabulary is a mysterious process.

Babies start learning words at birth as people give them milk and say “milk” or put them in the car and say “car” thousands of times.

So it goes throughout infancy and toddlerhood and, perhaps for most people, throughout the rest of their lives. We learn new words by a kind of osmosis, as we hear them or read them multiple times.

Some words make such an impression on me that I remember, or seem to remember (we all know how unreliable memory can be) the first time I encountered them.

For example, my last post, Dastard and Dastardly, is about a word I learned from Scott’s poem, “Lochinvar.”

Daïs is another of these special words I associate with early reading experience. This time I don’t remember the exact piece of literature, but I do remember that the word occurred frequently in stories about King Arthur.

King Arthur, who was leaning on his elbow, on the dais, spoke: “Kay, be silent; you are wicked and sinful, for you have reminded us of our shame. Now be quiet, and speak no more of it.”

The King turned away and Merlin followed him to the upraised dais. So now the two seated themselves and joined in earnest talk.

So King Arthur turned to seat his queen and then he himself sat down upon his throne, high on the dais.

Straight to the dais they came, the two knights.

Weak though he was he walked with a great firmness to the dais, and none there saw his poor clothes for the fineness of him.

As I recall, the word was always spelled with a diaeresis over the i: daïs. This mark on an English word indicates the the word is pronounced with two syllables. Nowadays it is often spelled without the diaresis: dais.

In the context of the Arthurian stories, the dais was a raised platform that held the high table where the king, queen, and other notables sat.

In modern usage, a dais may be any raised platform for seating. In the recent Downton Abbey movie, the word is used to refer to an outdoor structure rather like a bandstand, where people sit to review a parade.

Dais is frequently mispronounced by speakers who have not looked at the word carefully.

A speaker using standard pronunciation, according to the way the word is spelled, will say, “dA-is.”

A nonstandard pronunciation often heard is, “dI-as.” To my surprise, three characters in the British-produced Downton Abbey movie use this nonstandard pronunciation.

Teach your children to read with sytematic phonics and they’ll have the tools to learn new words by fixing the spelling and pronunciation in their minds the first time they see them.

4 comments to Dais—A Special Word Often Mispronounced

  • Jan, I looked around a bit more and discover to my dismay that the Downton Abbey pronunciation is gaining acceptance. The OED sticks to the way the word is spelled, but both Howjsay and Merriam-Webster offer the incorrect pronunciation as an alternative. I say “incorrect” because how much clearer can DA-IS be?

  • Jan

    A few minutes ago, abc news commentator George Stephanopoulos pronounced dais as it was pronounced on Downton Abbey. I went through the same thought process as you – American vs. British, did I learn to pronounce it incorrectly, etc. I have to admit I’ve always had to stop and think before using this word.

  • Jennifer Henson: My guess is that it was simply an error.

  • Jennifer Henson

    I am so glad to find someone else who noticed and has commented on this! I was struck by the pronunciation of “dais” in the Downton Abbey film. As an Englishwoman living in the States, I had noticed a very few examples of Americanisms in the television series (either intentional changes for the US audience, or errors – I don’t know.). So initially wondered whether it was a further example and an error. But two characters said it, so this seemed unlikely. Then I wondered whether I’d always mispronounced the word! Needless to say, I checked both the US and English dictionaries almost as soon as I arrived home and it seemed that the characters had simply mispronounced the word. So now I know that it is a common nonstandard pronunciation.

    Lady Mary said the word with emphasis and an expression of some glee. So, upon reflection, I am led to conclude that perhaps the mispronunciation was intentional and we were supposed to infer that the word was new to her and she was delightedly repeating it, using the same incorrect pronunciation that had been used by the person who had told her about the plan to provide one. And then so did the other character who used it. Or perhaps it was simply an error on the part of the actors and the film-makers decided to keep it in, the better to entertain those of us who are language enthusiasts. I’d love to know for sure!

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