Eschew ‘avoid, shun, refrain from’ is a formal word of Germanic origin that entered English via Old French in the 15thC. It’s not one I use often, still less speak aloud, but a brief exchange on Twitter got me wondering how people pronounce it.
Let’s do a quick poll before I say any more. It simplifies the range of vowel sounds in the unstressed first syllable, so ignore any small difference there for now. I want to focus on the consonant cluster and what we might call the shoe, chew and skew forms.
If you’ve never said eschew or are unsure how to, go with whichever one you think you would say.
[If the poll doesn’t display above this line, try changing your browser or settings.]
When I first encountered eschew I assumed it was pronounced /ɛˈʃu/ ‘eh-SHOO’, or with a schwa: /əˈʃu/ or longer second vowel: /ɛˈʃu:/. Later I heard someone say /ɛsˈtʃuː/ on radio, with the second syllable like chew (or stew, depending on how you break it) instead of shoe.
So I looked it up, and this is the What Happened Next Will Amaze You bit – or not, as the case may be.
Dictionaries note many pronunciations of eschew, all with stress on the second syllable. There’s lots of variation in the first vowel, but most dictionaries don’t mention the ‘eh-SHOO’ form at all, despite its apparent popularity. So a lot of people seem to differ from the recorded norm(s).
Macmillan gives /ɪsˈtʃuː/ for UK English, /esˈtʃu/ for US English. Collins and Cambridge have /ɪsˈtʃuː/, as does Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries for both UK and US. The OED has /ᵻsˈtʃuː/ and /ɛsˈtʃuː/ for UK, /əsˈtʃu/ and /ɛsˈtʃu/ for US. Non-IPA dictionaries more or less concur: American Heritage gives ĕs-cho͞o, Oxford Dictionaries /əsˈCHo͞o/.
The shoe variant is not neglected entirely. Merriam-Webster includes it – along with the rare skew form – beside the more standard ones: \e-ˈshü, i-; es-ˈchü, is-; e-ˈskyü\. Wiktionary notes that /ɛˈʃu/, /ɪˈʃu/ and /ɛˈskju/ are ‘sometimes proscribed’. For example, Garner’s Modern American Usage says:
Many seem to think that the esch- sequence is pronounced /esh/. It is not. The /esh/ sound makes the word resemble a sneeze.
Most usage dictionaries have no comment on the matter.
This consonantal variation is not surprising. Strings of esch aren’t common in English, but they can be pronounced in a few ways. Escher has a ‘sh’ sound and eschatology has ‘k’, while similar schisms occur with other sch words, such as schism and schedule. So it’s natural for people to analyse eschew along either line.
The variation is reflected in the word’s older spellings, which include esshue, etchewe, isschewe, escue, estchue, estewe and exchewe. Etymology, too: the OED says it’s from Old French eschiver, eschever, corresponding to Spanish and Portuguese esquivar and Italian schivare – all from common Romanic *skivāre , < *skivo, and related to modern German scheuen ‘dread, avoid, shun’ and the English verb shy.
All of which multiplicity and uncertainty means you’d be forgiven for shying away from the word, or even eschewing it altogether.
(See also: neologism.)