Q From David Kosofsky: I have always pronounced niche with a long E vowel and a terminal SH sound, on the analogy of microfiche or nouveau riche. When I recently used the word, a friend seemed surprised at my pronunciation, saying he’d always heard it pronounced to rhyme with ditch or glitch. I was not convinced until I checked in a few dictionaries and discovered that he was right. I could only find one that had the French-styled pronunciation I use, and that one listed it as a second pronunciation. How do you pronounce the word niche, and how would you explain the dictionaries’ deviation from what one would expect, based on nouveau riche or microfiche?
A Well, I’m with you, since I pronounce it /nɪːʃ/ . But I’ve just checked half a dozen British dictionaries, with some interesting results. They all give both of your pronunciations, but the order varies.
Oxford has recently changed its advice, with the OED of 1988 giving /nɪtʃ/ as its preference, as does the Ninth Edition of the Concise Oxford of 1996, but the recently published New Oxford English Dictionary (NODE) lists /nɪːʃ/ first. The Chambers Dictionary agrees with NODE, as does its stablemate the Chambers 21st Century Dictionary. However, the new edition of the Collins English Dictionary and of the Cassell Concise Dictionary both favour /nɪtʃ/.
This suggests that in Britain at least we are seeing a move back towards a French style of pronunciation after a period in which the word had become Anglicised, but that there’s as yet no very great degree of consensus. I can’t comment on the American position very usefully, but from what you say it appears that dictionaries there are maintaining the older Anglicised version.