Most pronunciation dilemmas arise with complete randomness, whenever a word happens to pop into the public consciousness. One point of confusion, however, is unique in that it strikes us with perfect biological regularity: How do you say “cicada”?
This spring, as the billions of cicadas of Brood II crawl out of subterranean bunkers from North Carolina to Connecticut (with a few isolated sightings in Massachusetts), their 17-year biological cycle is setting off a secondary cycle of English-language bemusement. As people point in horror or wonder to the swarms of insects, should they say “si-KAY-da” or “si-KAH-da”? Or perhaps “chi-KAY-da” or “chi-KAH-da”? How did we get so confused? Should we, in the immortal words of the Gershwins, call the whole thing off?