This adjectival term refers to someone or something that has an extensive period of life. It could be a great-grandparent or it could be a Galapagos tortoise. Both are very old. There’s hardly any mystery as to what this hyphenated term means; it speaks for itself.
What makes the term interesting, however, is its pronunciation. Some people pronounce it with a short “i” in the second word, as in the word used in the sentence, “She lived in the 19th century.” That’s a pretty normal way of expressing the word in American English, particularly if you’re not particularly given to being concerned about the peculiar nature of words.
But the other, preferred way of pronouncing it is to make the “i” long, as in the word “life.” It doesn’t make as much sense to the novice wordsmith, but it is the way the term long-lived is pronounced in both England and America. When you stop to think about it being more related to the word life [layef than live [liv], it begins to come into focus.
A person has been given a life. The life turns out to be a long one. Therefore, the person is long-lifed. But in the way in which words are created, lifed becomes lived. Kind of how knife becomes knives. You wouldn’t ordinarily say that your are going to the kitchen to get a “sharp knive.” You would say “sharp knife.”
Similarly, the plural comes into effect. The singular of life is pronounced with a short “i.” But the plural is pronounced with a long “i”, as in knives.
There is a sense of the ordinary or casual in our practice of using short-lived with a short “i.” It sounds much more formal to make it a long “i.”
So, we come to that point I have been making over and over again. The question is not about which is “right” and which is “wrong.” Neither is the case. One is preferred, and one is looked upon as something of an aberration. That doesn’t mean that the first is correct and the other is wrong. This evolving language is dependent upon frequency of use and familiarity of the pronunciation. Therefore, the more casual, short “i” pronunciation may well become the most common over the years.
The word isn’t used all that much in common speech, so it isn’t as if anyone should have to struggle with this issue. And…after all… the Taliban, al Qaeda, and ISIS won’t be eliminated by everyone getting on the same end of the teeter-totter on this issue, will they? It’s very much an academic question. But it is interesting…isn’t it? No? Oh, it is to me.
Image Credit: James