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 appears to be the more popular choice. In fact, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) says in a usage note that the pronunciation “was long regarded as incorrect, but it has become so common in both British and American English that it gained acceptability and now predominates in standard American usage.”

Oxford Dictionaries online lists it as the only pronunciation. The other five standard dictionaries we checked include both pronunciations as standard, but three of them use only SKIZ-em for their online pronouncers.

One of the exceptions, the online Macmillan Dictionary, has pronouncers for both. Only Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) has SIZ-em as its sole online pronouncer.

Merriam-Webster’s also includes a more distant third pronunciation: SHIZ-em. Lord knows what Sister would have done if she’d heard that!

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