Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Lilacs of Darlington

One of the great joys of the month of May in the Hudson River Valley is that it heralds the blooming of lilacs.  Like many people, Reggie considers lilacs among his favorite flowers, and he adores gathering them by the armload during their all-too-brief blooming season and filling the rooms at Darlington House with their gorgeous, headily fragrant blossoms.

A vase of freshly cut lilacs sitting on a table
in our drawing room at Darlington House

When we bought Darlington in the late 1990s the property had a four or five groups of lilacs that had been planted many years beforehand, some possibly dating to the nineteenth century.  They had not been tended in a long time and were, in most cases, rangy, malnourished, and in need of attention.  We pruned back, fed, and reconditioned those that we could. Over time, we replaced those that were beyond redemption with new (albeit old-fashioned), vigorous specimens, which are now—after more than five or so years in some cases—just coming into maturity.  They are covered this year with an abundance of plump, highly perfumed and exquisitely beautiful blossoms.  It is heavenly.

We bought all of the lilacs that we've added to our property (along with the trees and shrubs we've planted over the years, too) from Windy Hill Farm in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.  Windy Hill is a highly respected purveyor of unusual and rare plants, trees, and shrubs. It is owned and run by Dennis and Judy Mareb.  We are fortunate to work closely with Windy Hill, where we are regular customers, and have come to know, trust, and like Dennis, who we consider to be a friend.

Several weekends ago Boy and I visited our friends Francesca Montmore and Jasper Lambert in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, where Francesca lives in a rambling house on a leafy lane. The lilacs there were in full bloom.  It was lovely.

The weekend was full of amusing conversation and included much laughter (at least once to the point of tears) and an abundance of clever banter and babbling.  The four of us particularly enjoy wordplay, language, and the pronunciation of words, including what is considered to be correct and incorrect usage and pronunciation, and how those might vary regionally.

Francesca is a Charlestonian aristocrat of ancient and distinguished lineage.  She enjoys telling stories about her colorful family and ancestors, some of which are extremely funny.  She is smart as a whip, has a devilish sense of humor, and is jolly good company.  She is also given to making pronouncements (not unlike Reggie, I might add).

"My grandmother always said that people who pronounce 'lilac' any other way than with the primary emphasis on the first syllable are common," she said with a wicked, self-satisfied smile.  "I was taught to pronounce it 'LIE-leck' as the only correct way to say it, as opposed to 'lie-LACK', which is how these awful people here in Pennsylvania say it in their vile mid-Atlantic accents—one of the ugliest in America, I might add.  Tell me, how do you pronounce 'lilac'?" she asked, turning to the three of us.

Needless to say we all blanched, because—Heavens!—we were afraid of betraying our more common origins than Francesca's if we pronounced it any differently than she did.  There was also a certain amount of confusion, since none of us had actually stopped to consider how we pronounced "lilac" until Francesca had asked us.  I, for one, couldn't recall which syllable I emphasized, or whether I pronounced the second syllable to rhyme with "leck," "lick," or "lack."  Neither could Boy or Jasper.

So the three of us stood around stupidly saying and repeating variations on "LIE-leck," "LIE-LECK," "LIE-LICK," "LIE-LACK," "lie-LACK," "LIE-LOCK," and "lie-LOCK," like so many jibbering fools in an effort to determine how it was we each pronounced Francesca's verbal landmine.  I was helpless to determine how it was I pronounced it when I was doing so naturally, without the pressure of determining whether I was doing so in a manner that betrayed—and unmasked me for—my commonness.  By that point I hadn't a clue how I pronounced "lilac"!

It was only later, when lying in bed revisiting this vexatious subject, that I determined that I naturally pronounced "lilac" similarly to the way Francesca's grandmother instructed her granddaughter to, except with a less languorous and lengthy emphasis on "LIE" as she did.

"Thank Heavens," I sighed to myself in relief, and—with this once and for all determined—I promptly rolled over and went to sleep.

Tell me, Dear Reader, how do you pronounce "lilac"?

All photographs by Boy Fenwick


  1. Hello Reggie:
    Syringa!!! That is how we pronounce Lilac!!!

    Yours are absolutely wonderful and make a marvellous show in the drawing room. The perfume must be delicious!!

  2. J&L Hattat: Most amusing, and what a clever solution! Thank you.

  3. Down here we do stress the first syllable, so we are not "common", I suppose. But then again, we can't seem to grow them here, so maybe those awful Pennsylvanians are on to something!

  4. It's Lie Lack here in the Humble Bungalow...
    my lilac blooms are very short lived when I cut them...
    I have tried cutting up into the stems to allow for better water flow but to no avail they wilt within a few days.

    I am admiring your lovely pedestal glass vase.

    Your friend, the Charleston aristocrat sounds charming!

  5. Lie-Lack here, too! That's how we say it in Canada, at least!

    My childhood home had a giant lilac in the backyard and just remembering being there on a warm, sunshiny day brings back great memories! Thanks, Reggie. I always love reading your blog. It's like a breath of fresh air and sanity in an otherwise crazy day for me.-Hope

  6. My grandma called them Butterfly flowers.
    There! Pronunciation and syllable emphasis probelm solved!

  7. I apparently say 'LIE-lack', as I guess I'm one of those awful people PROUDLY from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. However, I have to say, I think it more vile to judge people based on how they pronounce lilac and honestly have never heard it pronounced any other way. We may not be taught how to 'correctly' pronounce lilac in Pittsburgh, but we ARE taught good manners. Of course, I realize this is all in good fun. I love lilacs no matter how they are pronounced.

  8. I pronounce lilac in the same way as your friend - actually more lieluks, with an emphasis on the first syllahble. The dying fall, and all that, of British pronunciation!

    Beautiful lilacs in a beautiful vase. (I do say vahze, not vace, I'm afraid). I can smell them from here. The scents of lilac, hyacinths and linden blossom are heaven on earth.

  9. lie-LACK. But then again, I'm from Pennsylvania. ;-)

  10. I don't, really, since we don't grow them well in California:).

  11. As that top picture of the lilacs in the bowl appeared on my screen, I sighed. The house I lived in during my high school years had a row of mature lilacs outside my bedroom window and the fragrance when they bloomed was almost narcotic. Here in Southern California, we don't get enough cold for them to thrive and bloom and I miss them. Thank you for this treat. And here in the wilds of California, it's LIE-lack.

  12. I just brought an armload in at Willow Manor. I adore how the fragrance fills the entire house. I smash the woody ends with a hammer before putting them in water. It seems to help them last a pinch longer cut.

    I say LIE-lack, btw.

  13. Love you Reggie, started reading when made aware from NYSD. Don't know what part of Canada Anon is from but I am from Burlington Ont and I have never in my life heard lie-lack there. It is lie-lock in Burlington and lie-lock here in Fort Lauderdale Fl where I live now too.

  14. They do not thrive here in Columbia, the hottest city in South Carolina, so some people call them "What is that ?". In my house we call them LIE-luks, heavy on the "ie", light on the "u".
    Best -

  15. I've always said LIE-lock and I'm from the U.P. of Michigan. Growing up, we had lilac bushes filled with dark purple, light purple, and white flowers. For the nostalgia and fragrance, they're my favorite!

  16. Dear Reggie: Darling Wife commented earlier today that our LIE-LACK bush was, at last, in bloom. It is a sign that the glaciers have finally begun to recede here on the Niagara Frontier, thank the Lord. I rushed to the yard and plunged my face into the nearest cluster of fragrant flowers and took the deepest of breaths. Heavenly! Your Loving Brother, Frecky

  17. It depends on who I am; if I am a girl from Queens (Jackson Heights, mind you) it is lie-Lack. If I am channeling my late great pretentious Mother - who adored lilacs - it is li-LOCK. And if I am with my Locust Valley lock-jawed pals, I think you all know how THAT sounds.
    Terrific post!

  18. Now that I've said "Lie-Locks" a million times...I think that's how I say it, yup, definitely lie-locks (just said ti again in a surprise, unintended test)!
    Yours are lovely and the "vase" is perfect for them. Is it an antique fish bowl?
    Our lilacs are just starting to bud...and I can't wait for their arrival...if only they lasted as long as hydrangeas.
    xo J~

  19. My family is from the South and I've lived in the South most of my life. I've only heard 'lilac' pronounced 'LIE'-leck'

    Not that the topic of the lilac shrub comes up in conversation much but the color 'lilac' does. It's always pronounced 'LIE'-leck' in my experience.

    Charles Harrington Elster has an opinion on the pronunciation of 'lilac' and its' history in his 'Big Book Of Beastly Mispronunciations: The Complete Opinionated Guide For The Careful Speaker.'

    Here you go:


  20. Some wonderful soul planted LIE-lucks in our yard years ago, and we adored them. Sadly, they did not prosper in our humid southern climate without extraordinary effort. The more pedestrian crepe myrtle is often planted in the South in place of lilacs, but it is a piddling substitute, bereft of fragrance, saddled with a late-season bloom, and susceptible to maniacal pruning: "crepe murder." Your photographs remind me of the spring glory that once was. Best wishes.

  21. As usual, I've learned something from your delightful blog. Old Virginians pronounce the word LIElick but I never realized some people pronounce it with emphasis on the second syllable.

    Also have to agree with ArchitectDesign's comments. We are losing our various regional dialects and accents which is sad and a shame. There are some I don't particularly care for but I wouldn't refer to them as "vile" either.

  22. Pronunciation, my dear Reggie, is the least of your worries...I hesitate to mention this but in Engand it is considered fearful bad luck to bring cut lilac into the house. Family tradition has it that WW1 was all the fault of my dear grandmother who innocently bought a bunch into the house the preceding spring....

  23. After a few weeks of embarrassing indecision about how I was wont to pronounce lilac, I had the good luck to visit my mother last weekend and and have her point out the beautiful lie-lox on the edge of her lawn that were for some reason this year blooming copiously after years of flowerless quiescence. LIE-lox--mother L and I, mid'lantics both, say LIE-lox.

  24. Definitely LI-lac. But preferably lilacS, as you really can't have too many. Yours are lovely!

  25. I never considered the obvious, pointed out by your southern commenters, which is that nobody in Charleston knows how to pronounce "syringa" because butterfly flowers don't grow there. But lack of knowledge has never stopped a Charlestonian from having opinions...!


    PS it's LYleck. As long as the first syllable is accented you're safe.

    PPS You forgot to mention my considerable physical beauty.

  26. Southerners tend to emphasize the first syllable of most all words, so that should be taken into account in this discussion. Ironically we do not have the opportunity to say "lilac" often enough; it is not the lack of winter cold but the extreme summer heat that prevents them from being successfully grown here. There is no lack of scent however, and there has been plenty of water for incredible displays of fragrant blooms of many types.

  27. Dear Mr. Darling,

    Off the topic here slightly, but still keeping to the botanical theme, but "poinsetta" is a particularly irksome one for me. I hear it every Christmas.

    Your Lilacs are indeed splendid!

  28. I also say LIE-lack, although none of the variations mentioned would bother me.
    Your beautiful pictures remind me of the song by Ernest Chausson, Le temps des lilas, bringing up the French lilas (pronounced lee-LAH, somewhat accented on the second syllable). The classic version is by Melba; here are a couple on Youtube: One by Gerald Souzay:

    And one by Maggie Teyte:

    Both great, but get the Melba!

  29. It's LIE-lack for me, too. I hail from Cleveland, which is a pretty common place when compared to Charleston. But lilacs are very common in Ohio. We never grew them in our yard, but my fourth grade teacher had quite a bounty in her back yard. She would cut bundles of them to give away at Mass on Mother's Day. She would have the fourth graders pass them out.

  30. I've heard it said as both "LIE-LACKS" and "LIE-LOCKS," with the accent generally being placed on the first syllable but occasionally being spread equally between the two syllables (as in "Tie Tacks"), but never, in my fifty-something years of living in various American States, have I heard anyone pronounce the flower's name "LIE-LECKS." That pronunciation is truly surprising to me. How anyone could read the letters L-A-C and come up with "LECK" or "LUCK" is beyond me, but I suppose when it comes to regional accents and pronunciations, it's a case of to each his own.

    Thank you for allowing me back in, Blogger!

  31. I think it's LIE-leck. I do find depending on who I am speaking with it can sound different. I think it's actually harder to say LIE-lack.

    I do agree the blooming season is far too short. If we ponder this too much, we will surely miss it!

  32. My grandmother is a Yankee (New York City) which may explain her strong feelings, since (as some commenters wisely pointed out) there are no LYlacs or LiLACS that do well in the South Carolina heat. (Though lack of knowledge never did stop a Charlestonian from having strong opinions about anything before!)
    At any rate, it's the stress on the first syllable that counts, I believe. LYlac.
    xxx Francesca
    P. S. You forgot to mention my considerable physical beauty, which--in person, anyway--blunts the sting of my terrible snobbery!

  33. Why not consult Ivor Novello in the matter?
    His song We'll Gather Lilacs as sung by any number of
    British vocalists will supply the answer.


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