Robert Willson is a salesperson with RE/MAX Premier Realty in Prairie Village, Kan.
Glad to Be a 'Real-a-tor'
How did we end up with the word “REALTOR®”? And why do so many people mispronounce it?
January 1, 2012
“I’m so happy you’re my Real-a-tor.” Many of us have heard these words of praise from sellers or buyers after a successful transaction. The accolades confirm the reason we are part of this sometimes challenging profession: to provide excellent service to our customers. We also know that satisfied clients are likely to spread the word among friends and generate those referrals that are the bedrock of our businesses.
But for some of us, the feeling of satisfaction has to be tempered by the fingernails-on-the-blackboard sensation at hearing the word Real-a-tor pronounced with three syllables rather than two. As a retired English professor from the University of Missouri–Kansas City whose second career is in real estate, I find it next to impossible to refrain from correcting errors like this. But I’ve noticed that my pronunciation help is not always wanted. I’ve also come to realize that it’s probably not in my best professional interest to dampen clients’ enthusiasm by correcting them at that special moment we call “closing.”
Over time, my instructional gene has overtaken my language-police gene, and I’ve tried to be more of a resource than a red-pencil–wielding fanatic. I decided to research the origin of the word in order to understand why so many other-wise educated, intelligent people mispronounce REALTOR®.
The first question that intrigued me was how the word “real” became linked to “estate.” It’s reassuring to know that what we deal in on a daily basis is real, as opposed to fictional or imaginary. But how did “real” come to describe houses, farms, commercial buildings, or other property people buy and sell? What I found is that “real” in Middle English meant “the quality of property or things.” When you think of it, we automatically call real that which we can touch, smell, or taste because these are properties. The ultimate Latin root, res, translates as “thing.” In law, fixed or stationary property—real buildings or land—qualifies as something to be bought and sold. “Estate” is defined as the extent of an owner’s rights with respect to his or her real property.
With this history in mind, there’s good reason for simply referring to us as “real estate agents” or “brokers” as the license dictates. However, “REALTOR®” was created, capitalized, and tradmarked to recognize those agents and brokers who are members of the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®, and therefore subscribe to the standards established by the association. While membership aims to confer professionalism, it’s something of a challenge to pronounce. When we hear the word “real,” for example, native English speakers tend to link it to similar-sounding words like “really,” “related,” “rely,” and “relay.” After the long “e” sound in “re,” we expect to hear a consonant, not a vowel. (Complications arise as well because the “ea” diphthong in “real” is sometimes pronounced as two syllables, as in “reality.”) So some speakers simply interject the “l” sound—just for the “l” of it?—after “re.” Consequently, “Real-a-tor” is what comes out of their mouths. (Many REALTORS® are undoubtedly effective “relators” to people, but that’s not our name.)
Another linguistic rule that’s probably in play here is metathesis. This term describes the habit of transposing letters in certain words as President George W. Bush and many others do in referring to nuclear weapons as “nuculer” ones. Similarly, when people say “REALTOR®,” some reflexively transpose the “l” and “a.” What results is awkward-sounding, but if so many TV anchors, politicians, and, yes, even fellow REALTORS® make the same mistake, we say to ourselves, how can they all be wrong?
I hope you’ll pass what you’ve learned along to colleagues. I also urge you to share this information with clients, with the following caveat: Stifle the urge to correct their mispronunciations. Even when they call us “Real-a-tors,” what’s really important is that they’re still calling us.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This corrected version clarifies some statements made in the original “Glad to Be a ‘Real-a-tor’” Commentary published in the January/February print edition. In fact, REALTOR® is not a job title and it does not identify the services provided or tasks performed by a licensee. Instead REALTOR® identifies a person’s status as a member of the local, state and national associations and their commitment to conduct their business, whether as a real estate agent, commercial broker, property manager, appraiser or other real estate specialty in accordance with the obligations of membership, including the Code of Ethics. The term was created by a member expressly to give the public and other members a way to identify and distinguish those real estate people who had accepted the obligations of membership from everyone else. The term was later trademarked, not copyrighted, by the Association to provide it legal protection.
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Updated: January 25, 2022