The Grammarphobia Blog

Schismatic teaching

Q: One of the sisters in my old Catholic school used to rap our knuckles (literally) for pronouncing “schism” as SKIZ-em. She insisted it was SIZ-em. This was back in the ’50s and I still pronounce it SIZ-em. However, nobody else does. Where did SKIZ-em come from?

A: An old radio hand once scolded Pat for pronouncing the ch in “schism” as if it were a k. This prompted us to discuss “schism” in Origins of the Specious, our book about English myths and misconceptions.

When “schism” came into English in the 14th century, we wrote, it was spelled “scisme” and was pronounced SIZ- em.

The word apparently first showed up in print in the Wycliffe version of the Bible in 1382, and it originally referred to divisions in the Church.

We got the spelling “scisme” from Old French, but the ultimate source is schisma, Latin and Greek for “split” or “division.” (The Latin ch and the Greek letter chi are pronounced like k.)

Latin scholars got into the act in the 16th century, when they decided to stick an h in the middle of “scisme” to reflect its classical roots.

Despite the new spelling, the pronunciation remained SIZ- em for another couple of hundred years—until it began to annoy an 18th-century lexicographer named John Walker.

In his influential and widely popular Critical Pronouncing Dictionary (1791), Walker wrote that in Greek-derived words, ch should be pronounced as k, so SKIZ- em “is the only true and analogical pronunciation.”

His opinion probably seemed reasonable to many people because ch was pronounced as k in two similarly spelled words of classical origin, “school” and “scheme.”

For the next 150 years or so, Walker’s new pronunciation was more popular with the people speaking the language than with those writing the dictionaries and usage guides.

The experts (like that sister at your parochial school) insisted SKIZ- em was an error until the 1960s, when the pronunciation started gaining a foothold in American dictionaries.

Today SKIZ-em is listed as the more popular choice in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.). The old SIZ- em is a distant second.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) includes an even more distant third: SHIZ-em. God only know what Sister would have done if she’d heard that!

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