One listen to the catchy 1939 jazz diddy “Shoot the Sherbet to Me, Herbert” by American musician Bob Chester and his orchestra, and you’re sure to be toe-tapping and singing along. There’s just one major problem: the word “sherbet” is mispronounced.
And that old song isn’t the only culprit. So many of us colloquially call the frozen dessert “SHER-bert,” as if there’s a second “r,” when the last syllable is actually a simple “bet,” sound (pronounced more like “buht”).
Why do so many of us think there’s an extra “r”?
The reason for the misconception may date way back to its roots in the Ottoman Empire. Alexander the Great was known for serving it as a dessert made of both fruits and flower petals — and Suleiman the Magnificent supposedly used the colors of the sherbets served to signal if an advisor would live or die, giving a whole new meaning to red sherbet.
The word itself stems from the Arabic word “sharba,” meaning “drink.” The Turkish version was “şerbet” and the Persian one “sharbat.” None of those contain the second "r," yet somehow when the word was brought into English in the 17th century from languages that English speakers were unfamiliar with, an extra "r" came along with it. In those days, both versions of the word were used: “sherbet” and “sherbert.”
A century later though, “sherbet” won out with the single “r” version dominating — and it wasn’t until the 20th century that the spelling “sherbert” made a comeback.
So what is the correct spelling then: sherbet or sherbert?
For a cool treat, the spelling has become a hot topic. Most traditionalists, including Baskin-Robbins, go by “sherbet,” with the popular 31 flavors chain confirming that it’s stuck with that spelling since the company’s founding in 1945.
Yet Merriam-Webster has a different stance — or perhaps they’re simply more forgiving. Since the questionable “sherbert” has also been in use since the word entered the language, it gets a pass. “It is now a fully established variant spelling,” the dictionary says.
Spelling aside, why do we still say it with the double “r”?
The favored pronunciation comes about by habit, according to English language historian Michael Adams at the Indiana University-Bloomington. “When I'm reading aloud to my children I sometimes unconsciously repeat sounds in syllables or words that closely resemble each other, and then I re-read the phrase,” he explained to Smithsonian. “Sherbet is begging to be pronounced Herbert on this ‘principle.’ It isn't a type of systematic change in language.”
Others say that it’s purely learned behavior. Since we’ve absorbed the word by hearing it with the double “r,” we tend to migrate to our first exposure to it.
How does sorbet fit into the picture?
If the “sherbert” versus “sherbet” debate isn’t enough to get your head spinning, how does the close variety of sorbet fit into the picture? It’s an entirely different dessert. While it’s just as fruity and frozen as sherbet, sorbet lacks one major ingredient: cream.
Finding its roots in the Roman Empire, the emperor Nero supposedly used to ask for snow to be mixed with honey and wine. So sorbet is essentially just fruit and sugar, whereas sherbet includes some sort of cream. To get technical, sherbet has to have 1 to 2 percent milkfat to earn that name, according to the FDA.
So what is the “Shoot the Sherbet to Me, Herbert” song really about?
While the (incorrect) rhyme was likely just a cutesy nonsensical lyric to build a memorable song around, there are a couple of theories as to its meaning. "San Jose Mercury News" columnist Joan Morris hypothesizes that the “sherbert” in the song may serve as slang for the trumpet or perhaps the part of the music played by the trumpet (like how "drop the beat" is used today). It could also just be slang for "drink," which would be consistent with its Turkish origin.
"Shoot me a Sherbet" certainly has a different ring to it than "pour me a shot" or "pass me a beer," but the song definitely gave the sweet frozen treat a memorable beat.