How do you pronounce “niche”? If you say “nitch”, to rhyme with “kitsch”, you’re probably from the US. If you say “neesh”, to rhyme with “quiche”, you’re in the company of people from all over the world – including the rest of the States.
For the past year I’ve kept track of whether people pronounce “niche” to rhyme with “kitch” or “quiche”, and where they’re from. I could do this somewhat systematically, because the word appears with great regularity in talks about stem cells, and I attended quite a few of those for work – always with a notebook and pen at hand. Whenever someone said the word “niche”, I flipped to the back page of my notebook, where I’d tally whether their pronunciation rhymed with “kitsch” or “quiche”, and which country the speaker was from.
Biology is an international endeavour, and, during the time of my unofficial survey, speakers from many countries took the stage at conferences around the world to talk about the stem cell niche. In the context of stem cell biology, the niche is the direct environment surrounding a stem cell. Usually it refers to the group of cells directly next to a stem cell, and the general shape of the tissue at that location. A stem cell is a cell that is not yet a particular type of cell. It’s not a blood cell or a neuron or a skin cell – but it has the potential to become any of these things. In many cases, the stem cell’s direct surroundings, the niche, determine what kind of cell the stem cell becomes. In other cases, the niche appears to be less involved in the cell’s fate. It’s a topic that comes up quite often. Medical researchers working on stem cell therapies need to understand what drives a stem cell to develop into particular tissues; developmental biologists need to understand the full environment of development; and cell biologists need to know whether a cell works the same on its own as it does when it’s next to another cell.
All those international researchers working on topics related to the stem cell niche all mention the niche in their presentations. Sometimes in passing, sometimes as main topic of their talk. They don’t always agree – not only about the role of the niche, but also about its pronunciation.
Some are clearly so confused by their colleagues’ variation in pronunciation that they try to appease all parties by going for an intermediate pronunciation, rhyming “niche” with “fish” or “reach”, but most of the forty people tallied are in one of two camps: kitsch or quiche.
While not all American speakers pronounce “niche” as “nitch”, they are clearly the only ones to ever do so. After more than a year of tallying votes, no non-American has ever said “nitch” as far as I can tell. Of course, some Canadians sound like Americans, and I may have accidentally mixed up a few people there (or accidentally counted someone twice), but it’s still rather striking.
According to American dictionaries, “nitch” is the preferred pronunciation over “neesh”, so neither camp is technically wrong, but in the global scheme of things, “nitch” is rather a niche pronunciation.