The Bokeh Dilemma

There comes a ghastly moment when you first, tentatively, speak aloud a difficult (perhaps foreign) word – one you’ve rarely (perhaps inconsistently) heard pronounced. Reading in peace, the word sounded unhesitatingly in your mind, but this trip hazard is inevitably destined for public utterance: one day you will be called on to get your shibboleth together, and loudly and proudly to say ‘bokeh’.

Don’t be afraid. Get the first vowel right and you’re literally halfway there. But is the ‘o’ short or long – a knot or a note? Canon’s initial vowel is short: ‘CAN-on’, not ‘CAY-nan’ (the land of promise). The first in Lumix is long: “LOO-mix’, not ‘LUM-mox’ (a lazy oaf). In bokeh, the first vowel is short – like the ‘i’ in Nikon and Nippon, not like ‘like’, nor the ‘o’ in ‘no’.

Like ‘bokeh’, Nikon (NI-kon, never NIKE-on) suffers from misapplication of the convention that appending an ‘e’ to a final consonant lengthens the preceding vowel: ‘at’ becomes ‘ate’ and ‘bit’ becomes ‘bite’. In nik-words (like Nik-Naks and Nik-Wax) the ‘i’ wants to lengthen to Nike (to rhyme with ‘bike’) – half-right, at least – properly nie-KEE, if the Greek has a say. But the Japanese thoughtfully terminated the English with ‘h’, to remind us not to rhyme bo-ke with woke. 

In English it’s uncommon to end a word with a short vowel: we seek plosive closure. In Japan, mid-word vowels are often abrupt and flat but freely float in the gaps between. So summon the chopping, descending a’s and e’s of ka-ra-te: say ‘bop’, but stop before ‘p’; say ‘ken’, but stop before ‘n’ – bokeh! 

It’s not a long ‘o’ – BOE-ker (rhyming with poker), or BOO-kay (like the French smell). It’s not BOCK-er (ryhming with docker). It’s not okay to crow bo-KAY, or stress the second vowel. Nor should a fondness for habadashery be implied by the pronunciation ‘bow-CARE’. It’s just bo-ke – ‘o’ as in ‘stop’; ‘e’ as in step. 

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 loaned word. English speakers were too stupid to invent it: we gaijin appropriated it, plucked it from its roots and abused it. Let’s not be cultural stormtroopers: preserve pandas; don’t eat dodos.

NIK-on, ZU-iko, Bo-Keh, Zeiss. Sayonara.

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