The Bokeh Dilemma

There’s a ghastly moment when you first, tentatively, speak aloud a difficult – perhaps foreign – word; one you’ve rarely and inconsistently heard others pronounce. Perhaps, previously, reading it, you sounded it confidently in your mind, but now the moment has come to vocalise this trip hazard; to get your shibboleth together; to say ‘bokeh’.

Let’s do it. Get the first vowel right and you’re literally halfway there. Is the ‘o’ short or long? Canon’s initial vowel is short: ‘CAN-on’, not ‘CAY-nan’ (the land of promise). Whereas Lumix is long: “LOO-mix’, not ‘LU-mux’ (a lazy oaf). In bokeh, the vowel is short – like the ‘o’ in ‘stop.

The ‘i’ in ‘Nikon’ is also short, like the ‘i’ in ‘Nippon’, not like ‘like’. In the case of NIK-on (strictly NI-kon, but never NIKE-on), the error seems to be a misapplied Silent E: the convention that adding ‘e’ lengthens the preceding vowel: ‘at’ becomes ‘ate’, ‘bit’ becomes ‘bite’ and nik (like Nik-Naks and Nik-Wax) becomes Nike, or nie-KEE if Greek. But here the E isn’t silent, it’s absent. And we’re talking Japanese. 

Japanese vowels are typically short, chopping and descending: ka-ra-te. Hence bo-keh: ‘o’ as in ‘stop’; ‘e’ as in step. Not a long ‘o’ – BOE-ker (rhyming with poker), or BOO-kay (like a French smell). It’s not BOCK-er (ryhming with docker). Not quite even the chicken-like bo-KAY with a long, stressed second vowel, rhyming with okay. 

In English and its derivatives it’s uncommon to end a word with a short vowel: we’re usually expecting it to be capped by a consonant: ie, ‘step’. But here it doesn’t, it’s karate – abrupt and flat – bokeh.

Of course you’re free to say it however you fancy. Compliance is not enforced; the bokeh police don’t issue fines. But it’s a word generously loaned to us and it would be gracious to treat it with respect. It has context, from which gaijin have plucked it. It has roots. You’re totally free to say it wrong but know that it clashes like a gong every time. Don’t be an Imperialist stormtrooper trampling on alien cultures: be the person that preserves the panda, not the guys that ate the dodo. 

NIKon, ZUiko, Bo-Keh, Zeiss. Sayonara.

Leave a Comment