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I Don't Care How You Pronounce SQL

For some reason The Algorithm(TM) keeps showing me posts about weather SQL should be pronounced S-Q-L or sequel. It's renting space in my head and it's Saturday so I wanted to rant about it.

When I was in college, I was publicly corrected for pronouncing SQL 'es-quel' and it caused a lot of shame. 'es-quel' is more on the sequel side of the argument, but I haven't run into it since. It's also how the instructor of the only database course I had ever taken pronounced it in the videos. I don't know if this was because he was saying it as a part of PostgreSQL or because he had a particular accent, but he was the only person I'd ever heard say SQL out loud before.

I was at a really exciting point in my own learning, because I was just moving from writing html/css/js to actually displaying data from queries in my projects on localhost. This felt extremely powerful and exciting. I was a freshman and taking an intro course in C as part of my actual coursework, but this SQL was independent learning and I was excited to talk about it with people who knew more than me. In this case, upperclassmen. I was considering joining the campus ACM chapter.

The room was full of CS and IST majors on the S-Q-L side, and the feedback was devastating. It was only a few sentences but I suddenly felt really, really small. I didn't just start a conversation by saying "hey, guess what guys? I know how to pronounce es-quel", either. I was going to ask a question about a join which is now long-forgotten and never got asked because I was absolutely flushed with embarrassment. I never did join that chapter of the ACM. But I did go home and google it to find that either pronunciation is acceptable and it seemed like a cruel punchline for the rejection I was feeling.

It's been a few years and I've developed a list of context-specific terms I use to actively avoid pronouncing SQL: schema, DBMS, database, postgres, query, join/select, store. They're never quite right for the context but I have also never been called out on it.

I'm reminded my experience is not unique (though it's a little overblown by rumination) through some comments I'm seeing tonight and because of conversations I've had with people in the decade since I went to college irl. I've noticed anecdotally that:

  1. people who have read it and haven't heard it said and/or learned mySQL first tend to say S-Q-L
  2. people who have taken courses with audio especially about PostgreSQL or Microsoft SQL Server tend to say sequel
  3. people who use SQLite are kind of wildcards

I think there's a subtle form of unintentional gatekeeping going on here. Many people stick to the form they themselves have been corrected to and correct others to that form with good intentions. Maybe it was lucky that the first time it happened to me was in a conversation during which a few other problematic things were said, because that prompted me to actually look it up and ask a few professors who all said it really doesn't matter, usually with the caveat of their preference and why. I had multiple office hours where professors basically reacted with the exact same vibe D. Richard Hipp has in this changelog episode. But the time it takes to correct someone on pronunciation that truly doesn't matter sometimes prevents the thing that person was going to say next like it did with me.

These conversations mostly happen when someone is trying to establish context before explaining something or asking a question. Even if they're just expressing enthusiasm, I think it's important to consider the vulnerability happening in conversation about code. If someone has just said the "wrong" pronunciation for the first time, there's almost certainly an experience mismatch or the element of entering into a conversation about this topic. As far as courses go, I think it would have been cool if the instructor in the first course I took mentioned that you can pronounce it either way, but creating course material is also a pretty specific scenario.

I always appreciate professors who remember to mention that either way is ok to their students during a lecture. It's something I might not have noticed if I didn't have such a bad experience, but honestly I think if "it doesn't matter" was the accepted stance, there might be fewer arbitrarily truncated conversations in this particular arena between students/jrs. Or maybe they'd just be arguing about tabs v spaces or the best editor or pineapple on pizza instead. I think SQL/sequel is different, though, because when you're learning a topic and get checked on your speech on what is basically the name of the topic, internal monologue can get to "I thought I understood this at least a little, but I don't even know what it's called" pretty fast. With tabs v spaces, we all know we're right and we're absolutely going to keep doing whatever we've been doing.

A few years ago, I had a conversation with someone who was really into inclusive pedagogy and taught math but coded a bit as well. He pronounced it squill (rhymes with 'quill') intentionally every. time. It sounded a bit meme-y (a la chat gippity) and a lot ridiculous. It was actually kind of infuriating for a few conversations. Then, as I got used to it, I started to check my motives about being "right" and correcting people who are "wrong" about it.

It kind of reminds me of the process I went through when I moved to a city for the first time and realized that people who use 'incorrect'/'improper' grammar are (a) completely intelligible and (b) not wrong for doing it. I let go of my hard-won feeling of being the most "correct" at grammar and realized maybe I was doing talking wrong. It wasn't until I came to this realization that I started to understand rich layers of meaning in speech I used to hear but wrote off in lieu of listening.

I still feel like I'm pretty good at diagramming sentences, but I stopped letting that be a determining factor in conversations before they even started. The reason I ever did was because I worked so hard to be good at English grammar. I worked so hard to get good at English grammar was because I was given positive feedback for speech and writing that was academically correct and disproportionately harsh feedback when I made mistakes. My sense of self was wrapped up in it. Now, when I remember the times I corrected other people for how they said something as I assumed I understood what they were saying. I'm sure I missed out on a lot. Plus: it would take me at least 60% more time to write a blog post if I edited it to what my standards used to be before publishing it.

This post is not directed at any person in particular. Posts on x are very different than real-life conversations and it's a good place to just have a take and really commit to it. I genuinely like the idea of squill or even squeal because they're jarring. Considering why we think something is correct can prepare us for how important that correctness is going to be in a conversation that will maybe someday happen. I've been practicing taking myself less seriously and my enthusiasm about learning and talking about code more seriously. I'm still not there. I have become much more comfortable saying "I don't know" and jumping straight through the sting of embarrassment into actually listening to the answer.

I don't care how you pronounce SQL. I care very much that you said SQL, and I would love to hear what you're going to say next.

Top comments (8)

robertobutti profile image
Roberto B.

I know what you mean; it happened to me with the term "Nginx" :)
I don't care how I pronounce Nginx, I care how I use Nginx.
I don't care how I pronounce SQL, I care how I use SQL.

PS: I learned that Nginx is pronounced “engine x”, but sometimes I pronounced it incorrectly. :)

Great post. Thank you for sharing

sifrious profile image

I only learned about the pronunciation of Nginx last year and as soon as I heard it made so much sense! I spent a while misspelling it because I’d only read it and the name just never clicked. Also a very relatable one

erikwhiting88 profile image

I'm sorry you experienced that. Correcting someone publicly over something as menial as pronunciation is such an uncool thing to do, especially in a field where practitioners have a variety of native languages and accents. It's a shame you were discouraged from the ACM as a student, I'm personally a member of that organization as well as the IEEE and find both to be very valuable. Thanks for posting your experience! I hope it encourages others to be more inclusive (or at least kinder) to fellow colleagues in this field.

sifrious profile image

Thanks for saying that! It really does mean a lot.

There's another reason I decided not to join that happened in the same conversation but idk about sharing it. And I should have been more specific (I'll edit it), that's why I didn't join that chapter of the ACM at that time. I did eventually join. Although I didn't quit coding over that kind of thing, I did leave that school and I ended up being a solo hobbyist for a long time before I tried to talk to anyone about it again.

I don't think my reaction would have been so strong to the SQL/sequel correction alone. I just think its good to be aware of.

tuto1902 profile image
Arturo Rojas

English being my second language, pronunciation was a big problem for me. I used to second guess myself before speaking. But the I said f*ck it! It’s all about what I want to say and not how I pronounce it. If you get the idea, great. But if all you hear is my thick accent, then you’re missing the point

sifrious profile image

I’ve heard you stream, all I heard is filament and enums

tuto1902_86 profile image
Arturo Rojas


sirguevara profile image
Sir Guevara

It is squeal “my squeal”