The Grammarphobia Blog

Vowel language

Q: The vowels are reversed in “fuel” and “feud,” but they’re pronounced the same. Is it because “fuel” comes from French and “feud” from Scottish? Is it that simple?

A: Your instinct is right, but it’s not that simple.

“Fuel” and “feud,” which have similar sounds that are spelled differently, do come from different branches of the family tree.

Ultimately, “fuel” comes from Latin and “feud” from old Germanic sources. But their ancestries apparently don’t account for the difference in their spellings.

Of the two words, “fuel” has the more straightforward history.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says the precursor to “fuel” was the Anglo-Norman word fuaille, derived from the medieval Latin focalia. The ultimate source is the classical Latin focus (hearth, fire).

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, in the mediaeval Latin of France and England, focalia occurs frequently “in charters with reference to the obligation to furnish or the right to demand supplies of fuel.”

When the noun “fuel” came into English sometime before 1200, the Middle English spelling was fewaile, and the word was probably pronounced something like that.

Subsequent spellings, the OED says, included “fewall,” “fewel,” “fewell,” “fowayle,” “fowaly,” “fowel,” “fowell,” “fwaill,” “fuell,” “fuelle,” “feuel,” and finally “fuel.”

Why did the vowels end up as “ue” and their pronunciation as YOO?

Your guess is as good as ours, but you can see from the spellings above that the two vowels (or their sounds) seesawed a bit over the years.

By comparison, “feud” has a much more convoluted history.

Its probable ancestor is a prehistoric Germanic word reconstructed as faikhitho, which roughly means a state of “foe”-hood. The root of this same ancestor, faikh (hostility or enmity), gave us “foe.”

The word showed up in the early 14th century in Scottish English, where it was spelled “fede, feide, or something phonetically equivalent,” says the OED.

But the Scots didn’t get “feud” from Germanic sources, at least not directly. They borrowed it from the Old French fede or feide, which had been borrowed in turn from a word in Old High German, fehida.

In the 16th century, the word was adopted in England “with an unexplained change of form,” says the OED. The changes of spelling included “food,” “foode,” “feood,” “fuid,” “fewd,” and finally “feud.”

But don’t lose sight of the old “foe” connection. In the 17th century “the word was occasionally altered into foehood,” the OED says.

Now here’s the convoluted part.

That Old High German word that was borrowed by the French, fehida, had a cousin in Old English—fæthu (enmity), which apparently died out in Anglo-Saxon days.

Thus during the Middle English period the Scots had to re-borrow the word by the back door, as it were, by way of French.

As for the eventual spelling, Ayto comments, “It is not clear how the original Middle English form fede turned into modern English feud.”

It’s also not clear how the YOO pronunciation of the vowels in “feud” became the  dominant one.

So in the end we can’t account for the different spellings of the similar sounds of “fuel” and “feud.”

As we’ve said before (more or less), language isn’t Euclidean geometry.

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