Say it the way it is ...

The IPKat's respected friend Gwilym Roberts has written to tell him:
"If you phone the Hague EPO on 0031 703 404500 you get a message saying "Welcome to the European Paytent Office". Does that make it the official pronunciation?"
Never wishing to presume to give a ruling on this sensitive matter, and being quite unable to find the relevant provision in the European Patent Convention, its Rules, travaux and its guidelines which deals with how the word should be pronounced in English, the Kat has organised a poll, which you can find in the top left hand of this blog's front page, in which readers are invited to offer their preference.

Pronunciation of 'patent' here, here and here
Say it the way it is ... Say it the way it is ... Reviewed by Jeremy on Wednesday, September 22, 2010 Rating: 5


  1. The "A" in "patent" should (of course) be pronounced as in "bad"!

    While we're dealing in the matter of pedantics... the phone number should be formatted according to ITU (ex-CCITT) recommendation E.123, viz, +31 70 340 4500.

  2. A survey long overdue. Patent pronounced "pahtent" is my take on it as well. Pronouncing it "paytent" turns it into an adjective with very different meaning.

    PS The survey could perhaps have been made fairer by having "patent" spelled "pahtent" for comparison with the misspelt "paytent".

    But I think the results still speak for themselves.

    Great post Mr Kat.

  3. Not wishing to miss an opportunity to plug my forthcoming dictionary of IP Law ...

    "Short ‘a’ (as in Stackridge), or long ‘a’ (as in Ayers): either appears to be acceptable in British English, according to the OED – it was the subject of lengthy correspondence in the CIPA Journal some years ago – though in American English the OED gives only the short ‘a’ version: (n) an exclusive right, of 20 years’ duration in most of the world, granted over an invention that is new, involves an inventive step and is capable of industrial application, unless it is excluded from protection. In the words of Abraham Lincoln, patents ‘add the fuel of interest to the fire of genius.’ The legislation excludes from the scope of protection certain matter (excluded matter) that might look like an invention but specifically is not. Importantly, this includes a program for a computer (see software patent) and a method of doing business (see business method patent), though these are only excluded from being considered inventions (and therefore being patentable) as such. The door is therefore left open to inventions that involve for example a computer program, which is just as well as otherwise a large number of inventions would be excluded. (adj) (1) Open, referring to the document which in days gone by evidenced the grant of a exclusive right (not necessarily to an invention) to which the Royal seal was attached at the end such that it could be opened and read without the need to break the seal (see letters patent); (2) the product of some inventive process (patent medicine) or an inventive product (patent leather, definitely with a short ‘a’), though the past participle of the verb to patent is more often used in this sense; (vt) to secure a patent for an invention (cf. to trademark or to copyright, expressions which often, especially outside the USA, serve to highlight the ignorance of intellectual property law of the speaker or writer), hence patented."

    Sorry about the lost hyperlinks. Can anyone give me chapter and verse on the correspondence that I remember reading in the CIPA Journal? Sometime in the 1990s I'm afraid. Iain Baillie was one of the correspondents, I think.

  4. I dug into this for my forthcoming Dictionary of Intellectual Property Law. The Oxford English Dictionary acknowledges both pronunciations for the noun that started all this (or is the problem that the EPO switchboard is using it as an adjective?). There was a lengthy correspondence on the subject in the CIPA Journal sometime in the mid to late 1990s which I have long since recycled - can anyone provide a refernce? Iain Baillie was among the correspondents. My recollection is that either pronunciation was considered acceptable.

  5. If I remember correctly I was very pleased to note many years ago that Shakespeare had written it with a double T: pattent. That would seem to exclude the long "a".

    Kind regards,

    George Brock-Nannestad

  6. purposive construction -- me lord

  7. My academic introduction to IP Laws was in Boston, where it was pronounced "Pah-tent". I then studied the subject further in London where the introduction given by my professor on the subject was on the correct pronunciation of the word patent. "Pa-tent" he emphasised the pronunciation to be, and went on to emphatically state that it is patently wrong to pronounce "pat-ent" as "pay-tent", and further added that anyone who pronounces it as "pay-tent" doesn't know what he/she is talking about. Needless to state, I have heard various conflicting pronunciations, some by people well informed on the contents of the subject matter. I now practice within the field of IP Laws in India, where it is pronounced "pay-tent".
    I have been looking for an authority to lay down what must universally be accepted as the correct pronunciation, but have come to realise that the correct pronunciation, even if established amongst IP practitioners, will always be mispronounced by the common man who is not informed of what that correct pronunciation is.

  8. Ooh- Excellent Post- I do love these, dare I say, "Trans-Atlantic" pronounciation questions. As an American, I prefer pahtent over paytent but if one logically follows the pronounciation rules taught in phonics lessons in kindergarten paytent does seem correct (of course this does not explain daughter and laughter, or the British need to pronounce the E in derby like an A in car)

  9. I suppose the correct pronunciation is indeed Paytent, but pronounced as pay - tent, with emphasis on pay :-))

  10. Isn't it patently [long] obvious that it is "patent" [short] for something that is not obvious ...

  11. I have the iPhone version of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, which include audio clips of pronunciation of some words - including both patent and patentee. Whilst the written text indicates both "pay" and "pat" to be acceptable, the audio clips for both patent and patentee are of the "pay" variety.

    As for my own usage, I grew up talking about "paytents", but having practised as a patent lawyer for about 10 years, I now use either - the choice depending on who I want to impress, annoy, surprise, etc.

  12. I was corrected on this once. By a senior patent examiner, when I used the long "a" version in my job interview at the patent office.

    I still got the job.

    I also still use both. I say it with the short "a" when talking to people who know about patents, and the long "a" when talking to people who don't. Simply because if I use the former pronunciation with the latter group, they always say "what?", and I'm forced to use the latter, "incorrect" version.

  13. After various encounters with the non-IP-wise public, I can only say that both cause confusion. The "European paytent office" is normally chinese-whispered into "European painting office" or the "European pattern office" followed by groans about how the EU could be wasting more money on such a sinecure. Then again, "European pahtent office" seems to meet blank looks more than often.

  14. Does that make it the official pronunciation?

    Only if you think that the examiner is always right!

    A good poll idea, but far too few options. We can be so much more pedantic than this - surely the real answer is that the verb and adjectival forms take the long "a" whereas the noun form takes the short "a"?

    (Or is it the other way round?)

  15. A Swedish friend of mine once wrote the word: "GHOTI" and asked me what he had written. I hadn't a clue. He said it was an alternative spelling of the word "FISH". "GH" from "tough", "O" from "women" and "TI" from "initial". I began to realise why I had been subjected to so many spelling tests in primary school.

    One possibility would be to consider the origin of the word - which in English could be of Norman, Germanic, Latin (from the age of enlightenment) or Nordic origin. In this case, the word is clearly of Germanic origin. The German pronunciation being akin to the "Pahtent" although the stress is on the final syllable.

  16. This of course is the shibboleth for distinguishing a real IP expert from some general jack-of-all-trades lawyer. Short a, always.

    Engineers can however be forgiven for using a long a. But not lawyers.

  17. [Flash] The EU decided that in the interest of European harmonization the pronounciation of the word "patent" in English should be pah-tent, as it more closely matches that of "Patent" in German or of "[lettre] patente" in French, thus eliminating a non-tariff protectionist hindrance to trade, as well as fostering competition between European representatives vying for business from the US. Directive 2010/67322 left however open the question of how the word's ending should be uttered in all EU languages, which is to be addressed by the EU's ministers council.

    [insert here a barrel of smileys]

  18. I recall this was debated in Parliament - but it appears that in the end they decided either pronunciation was acceptable!

  19. I think rather that as a medieval legalism its origins in English will be through Norman French and that any similarity to German are from its being loaned out not in. Either way, this might on its face favour the short a.

    But it's an import that predates the great vowel shift in early modern English. That would instead suggest that the long a is the more natural modern English pronunciation and the short a an archaism. Which is in a sense what we find. The long a is the vernacular pronunciation this side of the pond, the short a the specialist one.

    Nevertheless, I'll stick to my medievalism, and have voted for the short a.

  20. I'm guessing I'm not alone in having the following conversation on more occasions than I care to remember:

    "so what do you do"
    "I'm a patent attorney"
    "a what?"
    "a patent attorney"
    "a what?"
    "a patent attorney"
    "oh, a paytent attorney"

  21. Litterae patentes - short a
    Letters patent - short a
    Patent - short a
    Patent leather - long a
    Patently obvious - long a


  22. @Anon 24 Sept 7:54am - If, as an inventor, I get a patent (short a) on a new shoe coating, do I then have a patent (long a) shoe I can sell? Sounds most confusing!

  23. When I was a patent examiner, mis-spellings on incoming mail included: Pattern Office; Patient Office; Parent Office; and [my favourite] Potent Office.

  24. The EPO's name on incoming post is more than occasionally deformed into "European Parliament". Sigh.

  25. I’ve always wondered about this one. Originally a person was granted ‘Letters Patent’ from the Crown for an invention. Presumably the word ‘patent’ here had its roots in the English adjective ‘patent’, meaning ‘obvious’ (which we still pronounce today as ‘paytent’, coming from the Latin ‘pateo’ meaning to lie open – which in turn, interestingly, is pronounced with a short ‘o’).

    In other words, if the Crown acknowledged the invention, it was obvious, open, on the public record, manifest or patent (i.e. pronounced ‘paytent’) that the inventor had a monopoly in the invention. So that’s a fairly strong argument in favour of the true pronunciation being ‘paytent’. Unless, of course, we’re pronouncing the adjective ‘patent’ wrongly…

    On the other hand, we have ‘patent [short ‘a’] leather’ shoes. Presumably the process of making exceptionally shiny leather was at one time protected by a patent, hence the name. So that’s a fairly good argument that ‘patent’ should be pronounced with a short ‘a’ for the protection of an invention.

    Tomato? To-mayto? Who knows? I think I’ve sufficiently reserved my seat on the fence. But no-one, so far as I’m aware, pronounces ‘latent’ as ‘latt-ant’…

  26. When I was taught IP law by Thomas Hayes at the University of Aberdeen some years ago he always used to refer to "Pay-tents". Maybe its a Scottish thing !

    I was advised quickly to lose that habit before embarking on a career in IP practice !

  27. Many of those of a certain age and above still feel some pride in having been a patent agent, usually pronounced with a more northern and shorter “a” ie not as “paytent”. I had recalled that the OED gave both pronunciation options but found in my fairly new Shorter OED on CD that it is:

    "peIt(@)nt, "pat-/"

    which left me none the wiser. The sound part of the disc though, rather disappointingly, offered what I have to accept was “paytent”.

    The results of your poll will be interesting, and please add my vote for a short “a”. In support thereof I offer a story told many years ago by Percy Lincroft, then the much respected CIPA Secretary and Registrar. It concerned a senior CIPA member chatting to a young lady at a cocktail party or suchlike. She eventually asked what he did by way of profession and heard, albeit rather unclearly, that he was a “pattern agent”. She brightened, able now to enter a dialogue, and responded “Oh, that must be why you’ve been looking at my blouse like that”.

    It must be patent with a short “a”. No one says “payttern”.

  28. I find both pronunciations useful and stress that, at least in the U.S., a pahtent on something paytent is invalid.

  29. My understanding had always been that those who work with documents-related-to-patents day-in-day-out tend to call them 'pah'-tents, those who don't tend to call them 'pay'-tents and that many change camps on-a-whim for no particularly definable reason (or e.g. when talking sympathetically/attentively to (potential) clients who, themselves, would tend to use/understand 'pay'-tent?)

    Also, when used in any other context (e.g. leather, 'novel/obvious') it tends to be a 'lay' term and therefore 'pay'-tent.

  30. I hasten to add that I recognize paytent as linguistically justified because pahtent is but a foreshortened form of "letters paytent."

    "Invention" is another interesting word. I don't know where it came from, but prior to the 1952 US Patent Act, inventions were required to possess "invention" to be patentable. Confusing at best. Substituting "nonobviousness" for "invention" was helpful. Here, an invention now is whatever the inventor invented. Elsewhere inventions apparently must include an inventive step to be patentable. That must generate some interesting sentences.

    "Science" and "arts" are a fun *pair* of words in the context of the US Constitution. That document authorizes Congress to promote both, but the structure of the clause, as well as the word "useful" before "arts," makes it clear that copyrights were intended to promote the sciences (knowledge) and patents were intended to promote the "useful arts" (technology, in contrast with unpatentable "natural philosophy"). I am surprised when someone claiming expertise in US IP law says that patents promote science. The late, and sorely misssed, Giles S. Rich used to make much of this.

  31. I think the word "patent" is pronounced differently depending on which MEANING that you mean it to convey.

    The following are definitions for the word, patent:

    1. (noun) a government authority or license conferring a right or title for a set period, especially the sole right to exclude others from making, using, or selling an invention.
    2. (adj) easily recognizable; obvious.
    3. (adj) (of a vessel, duct, or aperture) open and unobstructed
    4. (adj) made and marketed under a patent; proprietary

    I'm fairly certain the 1st definition is pronounced "pah-tent."
    I've heard on a TV show the 2nd definition pronounced as "pah-tent." However, my instinct would be to pronounce this one as "pay-tent."
    For the 3rd definition, I've heard an instructor at a community college pronounce it as "pay-tent."
    I suppose I could assume that the last definition is pronounced the same as for the 1st one, since it's directly related.


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