If you’re a connoisseur of sweet treats, you’ve no doubt encountered the next word in our series dedicated to helping you gain confidence when pronouncing notoriously tricky culinary words: Caramel!
Made by heating a variety of sugars, milk, and fat together until melted, this sweet, sticky orange-brown colored confection is commonly seen on menus at bakeries, restaurants, and coffee shops alike. Whether drizzled on coffee drinks and ice cream, baked into delectable desserts, or cooled into chewy, delicious pieces to be consumed on their own, we encounter caramel all the time.
Yet despite its pervasiveness in our society, there’s great disagreement on how you actually say the word—and people are passionate about the pronunciation camp they belong to. Where does this division come from, how does regionality play into the pronunciation war, and what is the definitively correct way to say caramel? We’ll cover everything you need to know in the article below.
Caramel’s Origin Story and Etymology
The exact origin of caramel is somewhat hard to trace. While many attributes this sweet treat to the French, it’s believed that Arab nations were cooking up caramel as far back at 1000 A.D. While their version isn’t the same as what we know as caramel in the present day, they developed a firm, crystalized form of caramel by combining sugar with water, then allowing it to set until hard. They affectionately gave this candy the name “ball of sweet” — or “kurat al milh”. Much like the confection itself, while it doesn’t exactly match what we recognize as caramel, you can clearly see a resemblance in the words.
The Arab world was a powerful force and in its westward expansion, many new ingredients, customs, and skills were introduced to European countries—that included the cultivation and initial incorporation of sugar cane in Western cuisine around 1100 A.D. The French word “caramel,” which means “burnt sugar,” dates back to the 17th century, but is actually rooted in the Medieval Latin word cannamellis, a compound of the words for “cane” and “honey.”
Common Pronunciations, and Which is Correct
So, how do we actually say this word? Well, that depends on where you’re from.
There are two prevailing ways to say caramel in the United States—‘car-muhl’ and ‘care-a-melle.’ For those who speak British English, however, the pronunciation is ‘care-a-muhl’ instead.
According to Joshua Katz, a linguists doctoral candidate at N.C State University, most Americans—especially those from states in the western, southwestern, and midwestern regions— use the shorter pronunciation, ‘car-muhl.’ Americans from the eastern and southeastern parts of the country are more likely to say ‘care-a-muhl’ or ‘care-a melle’.
So which one is more common? According to a national poll conducted by Werther’s Original, 57% of Americans say ‘care-a-muhl’ while 43% use ‘car-muhl’. And while we love to tell others that our pronunciation is right and theirs is wrong, according to Merriam-Webster both are correct. It all comes down to personal preference.
No matter how you say it, caramel is a delicious sweet to experiment with. Why not make one of these delectable recipes and call the whole debate off?