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How to Pronounce 'Coyote'

People pronounce "coyote" at least five different ways. It differs by region, age, and even social factors. Some people even pronounce it different ways when they mean different things by it.

By
Mignon Fogarty,
A map of how people pronounce coyote in the US and Canada

People from the University of South Dakota told me their mascot is the “kai-oat,” but that his name is Charlie, and sometimes they also call him Charlie “Kai-oat-ee.”

But when I started reading the comments themselves, two patterns emerged beyond big-picture geography. 

Coyote: The Urban-Rural Divide

First, there seemed to be a clear rural-urban divide. People in cities are more likely to say “kai-oat-ee” and people who live in rural areas are more likely to say “kai-oat.” There were quite a few comments from people who said something like this:

I am from Los Angeles, and we say “kai-oat-ee,” but we would say “kai-oat” when we’re trying to sound like cowboys.

The Wile E. Coyote Influence

Second, there seems to be an age-related divide, with older people saying “kai-oat” and younger people saying “kai-oat-ee,” which, of course, leads us to Wile E. Coyote, the Loony Toons character who’s always getting an anvil dropped on his head by the Road Runner. That cartoon first appeared in 1949. 

Many people speculate that younger, urban people say “kai-oat-ee” because the only experience they’ve had with coyotes is from the cartoons, and that may play a role, but I believe the three-syllable version is actually the older version since the word comes to English from the Mexican Spanish word “coy-yoh-tay,” which ultimately goes back to the Nahuatl word “coyotl.” (“koy-OH-tehl”)

I found one radio interview that said “kai-oat” was the original pronunciation in English, but it didn’t provide references, and I’m not convinced. The earliest citations in the Oxford English Dictionary seem to be a mix of the two-syllable and three-syllable version. It’s a mess. The first eight citations spell it seven different ways. 

Noah Webster’s original dictionary, published in 1828, doesn’t appear to include the word. The Imperial Dictionary by John Ogilvie published in 1885 (an extension of Webster’s original dictionary), shows two pronunciations with the “kai-oat” pronunciation first, but Webster’s 1913 Unabridged Dictionary flips that around and shows the three-syllable pronunciation first, likely pronounced “coy-oh-te,” and then also appears to include an alternative two-syllable pronunciation. It seems that at least in the United States, people have pronounced it both ways for a long time.

For what it’s worth, the “kai-oat” pronunciation seems to be mostly limited to the United States and Canada. Nobody outside those two countries reported saying “kai-oat,” and the Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t include a two-syllable pronunciation. (But the Collins Dictionary does. Argg.)

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