Why is "February" so often pronounced without the first "r"? More and more, even on the BBC, I hear "Feb-U-ary" instead of "Feb-RU-ary." Have I missed something?
While "Feb-RU-ary" is still considered the standard pronunciation, most dictionaries recognize the pronunciation of February without the first "r" ("Feb-U-ary") as an acceptable variant.
Not everyone is so tolerant. In his Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations (2005), purist Charles Harrington Elster defends the "traditional and cultivated pronunciation." February, he says, "is a different word and a different month, with a peculiar spelling, a peculiar pronunciation, and a very peculiar number of days, all of which adds up to the fact that we must treat the creature with particular respect."
Yet in common speech, the shortest month has long been abused. In The New Schoolmaster, a one-act play that appeared in Sargent's School Monthly in May 1858, Mr. Hardcase says of February that "there is a prejudice in favor of an 'r' at the beginning of the second syllable; but if you choose to drop it, where's the harm?"
The loss of the first "r" in the pronunciation of February is (in part) the result of a process called dissimilation (or haplology), where one of two similar sounds in a word is sometimes changed or dropped to avoid the repetition of that sound. (A similar process sometimes occurs with the pronunciation of library.)
More simply, as Kate Burridge points out in Weeds in the Garden of Words (2005), the standard pronunciation of February "takes considerable effort, and in normal rapid speech we're likely to drop the first 'r.'" Also, the pronunciation of January has probably contributed to the simplified pronunciation of February.
There are, of course, many discrepancies between spelling and pronunciation in English. As David Crystal reminds us in The English Language, "[S]peech came first, in the history of our species," and "English spelling hasn't been a good guide to pronunciation for hundreds of years."