Grammar Girl Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing

Did Disney nail the pronunciation of 'Caribbean'? How to write equations. Chuther.

Episode Summary

946. It's Talk Like a Pirate Day, which brings to mind "Pirates of the Caribbean," but you can actually pronounce "Caribbean" at least two different ways. Did Disney get it right or wrong? We turn to history for the answer and discover a second fascinating linguistics story along the way! Plus, we answer a listener's question about how to write equations.

Episode Notes

946. It's Talk Like a Pirate Day, which brings to mind "Pirates of the Caribbean," but you can actually pronounce "Caribbean" at least two different ways. Did Disney get it right or wrong? We turn to history for the answer and discover a second fascinating linguistics story along the way! Plus, we answer a listener's question about how to write equations.

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Episode Transcription

What’s the right way to pronounce 'Caribbean?'

by Valerie Fridland

In the well-known Disney movie franchise, the daring and devious Captain Jack Sparrow is not just any old pirate, but specifically a pirate of the “care-ih-bee-an.”  But what was striking to a lot of people when they heard that title was not just Captain Jack’s lack of manners, but also that the Disneyfied pronunciation was a bit different than the one many English speakers use, which is “cuh-rib-ee-an.” So who is right?

Grammar Girl here. I’m Mignon Fogarty, your friendly guide to the English language. Stick around because after we engage in some Pirate-adjacent fun, we're going to talk about tricky problems that come up when you're writing about math.

Back to the Caribbean. It turns out, most dictionaries list both pronunciations — “care-ih-bee-an” and “cuh-rib-ee-an” — and say both are widely accepted. But, this is a situation where looking back at the origin of the word itself can help tease out how it was originally pronounced — and if we go back a few centuries, it can help reveal if Disney got it right.

The story of the Caribbean Islands goes back centuries, when they were inhabited by a number of different indigenous peoples who had settled the islands, likely having come from South America. When Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue, he happened upon these islands and some of their inhabitants and spent time particularly in the company of one of these indigenous tribes, the Arawak. He tried to communicate using gestures smattered in with a bit of their language, Taino (pronounced “Tie-ee-no”), a language now extinct but from which English owes a great debt for many borrowed words,  including “maize,” “canoe,” and “tobacco.”   

According to Columbus, the Arawak conveyed to him, mostly through gestures and facial expressions, that there was a hostile tribe, called the Carib, ["Care-ihb," like "carob"] who inhabited other islands nearby, and Columbus wrote back to Spain recounting his experiences with both the Arawak and the “Caribe.” Now, “Caribe” was not what members of this tribe originally called themselves, but it seems to have come from Columbus’ European filtered understanding of their Arawakan name, “Kalino” or “Karina,” translating into something close to “brave warrior.” Thus, the word “Caribe,” which is pronounced “Care-ihb,” became the root of the word “Caribbean,” meaning “of the Carib,” which suggests the original pronunciation was “care-ih-bee-an,” just like Disney’s movie.

These island Caribs, as they came to be known, were a fierce warrior tribe, and they powerfully resisted Spanish excursions onto their lands, which earned them a reputation among the Europeans as savages — and seems to also have been the origin of not just “Caribbean,” but also the word “cannibal.”   

“Cannibal” developed from a Spanish derivative of the name of the tribe, “Canibales,” which the Spanish claimed meant “flesh-eaters.” Whether the tribe in fact was cannibalistic is hotly debated, since, though a few historical accounts claim to have witnessed it, it is more likely that the Spanish made it up to justify enslaving them since legal statutes at that time specified that only cannibalistic native populations could be enslaved. Since the Lesser Antilles were rumored to be flush with gold, which Spain most certainly wanted, such propaganda to support the subjugation of the native population was useful. As a result, over time, most of the Kalino ended up being killed or fleeing, and the tribe was essentially decimated.

Though today even those native to the islands pronounce the name a number of different ways, the pronunciation that most recognizes the early indigenous population from where the name derived is “care-ihb-ee-an.”

The origin of the name is not the only interesting linguistic story these Islands hold either because a century or so after Columbus, a number of  16th and 17th century European explorers also spent time with the Arawak as missionaries. Now, these early European missionaries wrote of discovering a most unusual gender situation on the Islands — which is that the men spoke Island Carib (i.e., the language of the Carib, also known as Karina), while the women spoke Arawakan Taino. In other words, it appeared to them that the men and women spoke completely different languages, and this is the only instance ever reported of such an extreme situation. 

Now, these reports also give a fascinating explanation for this difference: The Arawaks told the missionaries that this linguistic difference came about because, centuries before, Carib warriors had invaded the Arawakan Islands, killing the men and enslaving the Arawak women as wives. Thus, the language difference was related to this forced intermarriage earlier in the tribe’s history — since the men  spoke the Karina language, and the women they took as wives spoke Taino. But, over time, the men did adopt a bit of Arawak mixed in with their native language.  For example, when saying “come and go,” a man would say [and forgive my pronunciations] “Nebouiátinatibónam while a woman would say “Chileàtinatone.” You can see how it's a blend, especially when looking at the words written out. The root words are different for the male and female versions — the men's language has Carib roots ("Neboui" and "ibónam"), and the women's language has Arawakan roots ("Chile" and "one"), but both forms have the same suffixes and prefixes ("-atina" ["Nebouiátina" and "Chileátina"] and "t-" ["tibónam" and "tone"]). Today, researchers think that the majority of the language spoken by men and women was actually the same and that the missionaries might have exaggerated or misunderstood the differences a bit.

Unfortunately, since Island Carib and Taino are no longer spoken today, we can’t know for sure how accurate these accounts are, or how much of the origin story recounted to the missionaries by the Arawaks is true. But what this story can remind us of is how much culture and history we lose when languages go extinct — something currently happening on a mass scale, with 40% of languages still spoken today in danger of disappearing.

That segment was written by Valerie Fridland, a professor of linguistics at the University of Nevada in Reno and the author of "Like Literally, Dude: Arguing for the Good in Bad English." You can find her at

How to write equations

by Mignon Fogarty

Here's a question from a listener:

"Hi, Grammar Girl. I'm a physics post-doc, and I have been wondering this question for, like, years. So we have these long equations that span more than one line, and it's very hard to organize special equations. Is there a manual that tells us how these equations can be organized? And also another quick question is if I need to write, for example, 'by default n=1' should I write 'by default' and in the word 'equals one'? Or should I write it 'by default' and using the equal sign '=1.' Thank you. Keep up the good work. Bye bye."

So I was catching up on listening to voicemails while I was having breakfast with my husband, and when I heard this message, I jumped up and ran to my office, and he started laughing. But I knew I had a reference book that would answer this question, and I just couldn't wait to get to it. I've gathered probably about 200 books on English over the years, and most of them just sit there like an abandoned toy waiting to be used, and this week, it was "Scientific Style and Format"'s turn.

This is a style guide put out by the Council of Science Editors, and it's probably been 10 years since I've needed it. And now the pages of this happy little book get to breathe again to tell us about equations!

It says you should try to break the equation after an operator because that helps the reader realize that something more is coming. In other words, break it after an equal sign, plus or minus sign, or a multiplication or division symbol (in that preferred order, actually).

It also says not to do a line break in the middle of a fence, which means don't break up a set of numbers that need to be considered together, like numbers together inside parentheses or brackets.

Interestingly, the book also recommends trying as much as possible to keep equations limited to a single vertical line of text to keep the spacing looking standard. For example, it says if you're showing that a is divided by b, it's better to write "a/b" than to write them stacked as "a-over-b."

As for whether to use the equals symbol or the word "equals," I would use the symbol. It's what I'm used to seeing from my days as a technical writer. It's also what you see in journal articles about drug studies, for example. I couldn't find an entry on that specific question in "Scientific Style and Format," but it's how it’s written a couple of times in the text in the book.

Finally, I have two caveats: First, it says that when an equation spans more than one line, knowing where to put the line break requires "knowledge of mathematics," which I interpret to mean, if our rules don't make sense in your case, don't follow them. 

And second, I think an important point is that if you are trying to publish a research paper, you should always check what the style is of your target publication because lots of journals have their own rules or at least they might say which style guide they want you to follow. So don't assume they will all use the general style I just told you.

I actually double checked what I told you here against the much more detailed online style guide from the American Mathematical Society (and I'll put a link to that in the show notes), and it generally concurred. Amazingly, when I tried to search for something about the equal sign, I found that the word "equals" doesn't appear once in the entire 160-page document. It does say, however, that you shouldn't use the mathematical symbols for "there exists" and "for all" in text. Those are just for equations.

Thanks so much for the question. I and my "Scientific Style and Format" book thank you.


Finally, I have a familect story from Amy. 

"Hi, this is Amy, and I wanted to share a story of our familect. When my kids were little and they would be doing something really cute, you know, snuggling with each other, I would say something like 'Aww, you know, they're loving each other,' or something like that. Well, one day, my three-year-old was hugging her one-year-old brother, and she said, 'Look, mom, we're loving our 'chuther.' And it was years before I told her that 'chuther' was not a word, but we will still … they are 22 and 23, to this day for this day when they are being sweet, we will refer to them as loving their chuther."

Thanks, Amy! I loved that we didn't have anything like that in my family, but it reminded me of the kind of story that could have happened in my family and that my mom would have loved as much as you do.

If you want to share the story of your familect, a word your family and only your family uses, call the voicemail line at 83-321-4-GIRL. It’s in the show notes, and be sure to tell me the story behind your familect because that’s always the best part.

Grammar Girl is a Quick and Dirty Tips podcast. Thanks to our audio engineer, Nathan Semes, and our director of podcasts, Adam Cecil. Thanks also to our ad operations specialist, Morgan Christianson; our marketing associate, Davina Tomlin, and our digital operations specialist, Holly Hutchings, who absolutely loves rollerskating.

And I’m Mignon Fogarty, better known as Grammar Girl. That's all. Thanks for listening.


References for the "Caribbean" segment.

Boucher, P. P., & American Council of Learned Societies. (1992). Cannibal encounters: Europeans and island caribs, 1492-1763. John Hopkins University Press.

“cannibal, n.”. Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press, July 2023,

Seaman. (2013). Conflict in the early Americas : an encyclopedia of the Spanish Empires Aztec, Incan, and Mayan conquests. ABC-CLIO.