It’s Sherbet, Not Sherbert, You Dilettantes

The frozen treat has been mispronounced by generations of Americans

How did this double 'r' become so prevalent? (gusach / iStock)
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On assignment from my editor, I conducted an informal Facebook survey and found out something quite distressing about my friends: the bulk of them have been ordering, describing and enjoying the sweet pleasures of a dessert that doesn't really exist. Of course, they will tell you something different—that “sherbert,” a delicious frozen blend of sugar and fruit juice, with just enough dairy to resemble a lighter, softer ice cream is a real as gelato or frozen custard. They're not alone in their thinking. Local creameries throughout the United States. have been slinging scoops of “sherbert” for years, whipping it up in a rainbow of colors. But the truth is that second 'R' is erroneous. It's been “sherbet” all along.

"Trust me on this," says Neal Gottlieb, founder of the Bay Area-based Three Twins Ice Cream and former “Survivor” contestant known for his ice cream-printed pants and bow tie. “[It's] definitely sherbet,” he adds adamantly. “When I was a child my mother sold Tupperware part-time, and the company often gave her bonuses. One of the things she received was a combination ice cream freezer and citrus juicer, and she would make incredible orange sherbet using fresh-squeezed orange juice. When I opened Three Twins, I started making orange sherbet with OJ that I would squeeze myself. What did I call it? Mom's Orange Sherbert. Customers quickly started correcting me and I haven't made that mistake since."

Gottlieb’s customers were right: word purists will waste no time in schooling you on the proper spelling and pronunciation of sherbet, and the pedants have stacks of evidence in their favor. Despite widespread use and general public acceptance that second 'R' is virtually non-existent in the frozen food aisles of supermarkets, or in national ice cream chains like Dairy Queen and Baskin-Robbins (purveyor of the popular Rainbow and Wild 'n Reckless sherbet—a colorful blend of green apple, blue raspberry and fruit punch). In fact, a spokesperson for Baskin-Robbins assured me, “The brand has spelled 'sherbet' with just one 'r' since its founding [in 1945].”  This, she says, is consistent among their franchises nationwide.

The misspelling and pronunciation of 'sherbet' is so prevalent that many English language dictionaries, including Merriam-Webster, now include “sherbert' as a viable alternative. (Ed. Note: This is terrible.) So just how did this double 'r' become so prolific?

According to Merriam-Webster, “the 'sherbert' spelling of 'sherbet' has been around since the word entered English.” They can both trace their roots back to the late 16th century Middle East and the Arabic word sharba, which means a drink. The Turkish word şerbet and Farsi’s sharbat (or zerbet) derived from here (note that in all three instances, there’s only one 'r' sound). However, once these words and their pronunciations found their way across the Atlantic, spoken in languages with accents not so easily understood—people made their own interpretations. Today spellings like 'shurbet,' 'sherpet' and 'cerbet' are all listed as 'historical examples' of the word sherbet in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Still, says Grammarist.com, “Sherbet became the unquestionably standard spelling by the middle 19th century...and since then only sherbert has given it any competition.”

As for how 'sherbert' became so prevalent and enduring, English language historian and Indiana University-Bloomington provost professor Michael Adams believes it has to do with our tendency to assimilate sounds as we expect to hear them. “I think a lot of English speakers are like me,” says Adams. “When I'm reading aloud to my children I sometimes unconsciously repeat sounds in syllables or words that closely resemble each other, and then I re-read the phrase. Sherbet is begging to be pronounced Herbert on this 'principle.' It isn't a type of systematic change in language,” he says, “but a lexical change,” meaning that it's not a particular environment that's influencing our pronunciation but more a change in preference. “This happens when the stress [of a word] shifts from the second syllable to the first, like in the course of moving from Arabic to a Germanic language such as English. It opens up the opportunity for a rhyme.”

"I suspect the distinction has more to do with class and education rather than region," says linguist Dennis R. Preston, a regents professor at Oklahoma State University. Basically, we pronounce words in the ways they've been passed down to us. Preson notes that there's also often misuse among sorbet and sherbet, with the former sounding like a “posher” version of the latter (the culinary difference is that its dairy-free).

Of course, there's also the theory that the lasting pronunciation of “sherbert” stems entirely from composer Ben Homer's 1939 Big Band hit, "Shoot the Sherbet to me Herbert," which although it is spelled correctly, is sung with the rhyme and popular pronunciation "sherbert." In a New York Times humor column imagining a conversation between President Ronald Reagan and Ayatollah Khomeini, author Russell Baker references the song (with a mispelling), putting these words in Reagan's mouth: "'Sherbert' is a deliberate misspelling of 'sherbet,' because saying, 'Shoot the sherbet to me, Herbert,' isn't half as much fun as saying, 'Shoot the sherbert to me, Herbert.'" 

According to a 2010 article in California's Contra Costa Times, the song—which Tommy Dorsey later popularized— appears to be “hipster talk, along with the trend of the day for nonsensical rhyming titles."

It wouldn't be the first time hipsters spoiled something for America. 

About Laura Kiniry

Laura Kiniry is a San Francisco-based freelance writer specializing in food, drink, and travel. She contributes to a variety of outlets including American Way, O-The Oprah Magazine, BBC.com, and numerous AAA pubs.

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