Etymology Pronunciation Spelling

Why is “t” often silent?

Q: I teach English at a high school in Wyoming. I was looking to justify my abhorrence of the word “oftentimes,” and I came across your piece about pronouncing the “t” in “often.” I usually point out to my students that we don’t pronounce it in “soften,” “hasten,” and “fasten,” so why do it in “often”? Do you have a good explanation?

A: The short answer is that the “t” in many words is silent because it’s too difficult or awkward to pronounce and has become assimilated into the surrounding consonants.

Let’s start with a little etymology. Some verbs with silent “t”—like “soften” and “moisten”—were created when the suffix “-en” was added to an earlier adjective ending in “st” or “ft.”

In the case of “fasten,” the ending was added even before the verb came into English from old Germanic languages. But the root is still the adjective “fast,” meaning stable or fixed.

A couple of similar verbs are special cases. “Listen” originally had no “t” (it was spelled lysna in Old English), but it acquired a “t” by association with the archaic synonym “list.” And “hasten” is merely an extended form of the old verb “haste,” formed by analogy with the other “-en” verbs.

As we said in our blog posting about “often,” the word can be properly pronounced either with or without a “t” sound. The “t” had long been silent but it came back to life in the 19th century with the rise of literacy, when people seemed to feel that each letter in a word should be sounded.

For some reason this didn’t happen with “soften,” whose “t” is always silent. And in the other verbs we mentioned—“moisten,” “fasten,” “listen,” “hasten” —the “t” is invariably silent, never pronounced. Similarly, the “t” disappears when we pronounce words like “castle,” “christen,” “epistle,” “glisten,” “nestle,” “pestle,” and others.

It’s a good bet that if a word ends in “-sten,” “-ften,” or “-stle,” the “t” will be silent. Why? We found an answer in a paper published more than a century ago.

The article, “On ‘Silent T’ in English,” by James W. Bright, appeared in the journal Modern Language Notes in January 1886.

As Bright explains, the “t” in these words is an acoustically “explosive” one, and to sound it after an “s” or an “f”—both of which expend “considerable breath”—is “especially difficult and obscure.” Consequently the “t” sound is assimilated into its surroundings and becomes silent.

However, the “t” sound persists in some other words spelled with “-stl” and “-ftl,” like “lastly,” “justly,” “mostly,” “shiftless,” “boastless,” and others.

Bright explains that such words “are, with most persons familiar with their use, conscious compounds; as they become popular words, and therefore subject to unstudied pronunciation, they conform to the regular rule. It is only after administered caution that we learn to make t audible in wristband.”

We’ve written before on our blog about silent letters: The thing to remember is that English words have varied in their pronunciations over the centuries. So letters that live on in our spellings may have fallen out of our pronunciations.

And if you’re still bugged by “oftentimes,” you might check out our posting about its history and legitimacy.

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Grammar Punctuation Spelling Usage

Its/it’s: Grammar, punctuation, spelling?

Q: Over dinner, a friend said she had corrected a co-worker’s mistaken use of “its” where “it’s” was appropriate. She described this as a grammatical error, but our dinner party was evenly split over whether it was grammar or spelling. Any chance you can shed some light on this?

A: On a superficial level, this qualifies as both a punctuation error and a spelling error.

But on a deeper level, it’s a grammatical error, because it represents a failure to distinguish between (1) the possessive pronoun and (2) the contraction.

It also represents a failure to recognize that possessive pronouns don’t sport apostrophes.

So the problem is more than just a spelling goof in our opinion. That probably puts us into the grammar-error camp.

You might be interested in a blog entry we wrote last year about how the apostrophe came to be the mark of possession.

If any reader of the blog is confused by “its” and “it’s,” check out our 2007 posting about the “it” squad.

In the meantime, here’s an easy way to keep “its” and “it’s” straight: If you can substitute “it is” or “it has,” then “it’s” is right. Otherwise, choose “its.”

(The language blogger Jan Freeman argues that these “its”/“it’s” errors are merely typos, but comments from readers of our books, articles, and postings over the last 15 years suggest otherwise. Although a lot of the mistakes are undoubtedly typos, many, many people believe the presence of an apostrophe in “it’s” makes it a possessive. In fact, Pat’s first book, Woe Is I, was inspired by a publisher whose highly educated, adult children didn’t know the difference between these two words.)

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Pronunciation Spelling Usage

When “e” is seen but not heard

Q: A patron at the library where I work wants to know why some words (“pronounce” and “like,” for example) retain their silent “e” when adjectivized.

A: The word “pronounce” keeps its silent “e” in “pronounceable” for the same reason that many other words ending in “ce” do. When a suffix is added, the presence of the “e” influences the pronunciation of the preceding “c”—keeping it soft instead of hard.

If that “e” were dropped, we’d end up with “pronouncable.” In English, the letter combination “ca” is pronounced with a hard “c” (as in “cable”) instead of a soft one (as in “certain”). The middle syllable would be NOWNK instead of NOWNSE.

Same with “peaceable” and “noticeable.” If they were spelled “peacable” and “noticable,” one would be tempted to pronounce each “c” like a “k.”

This is also true of words ending in “ge,” like “marriage.” If the adjective were spelled “marriagable,” the “g” would look as if it were hard (as in “girl”) instead of soft (as in “judge”). The letter combination “ga” is hard but “ge” at the end is usually soft, as in “garage.”

So with many words ending in “ce” and “ge,” the silent “e” is generally retained in a suffixed form to keep the consonant soft—in other words, to keep the sound as “s” instead of “k,” or as “j” instead of a hard “g.”

In the case of “like” and many other words that end in a silent “e,” the “e” is often a signal that the preceding vowel is long instead of short. We’ve written about this phenomenon before on our blog.

For example, “dim” has a short “i” but “dime” has a long one; “hat” has a short “a,” but “hate” has a long one; “lob” has a short “o,” but “lobe” has a long one.

And with many of these words, the silent “e” is retained in a suffixed form to keep the vowel from changing (“hateful” instead of “hatful,” for example).

With “like,” there are two accepted spellings of the adjective form: “likeable” is more common in Britain and “likable” is more common in the US, but both are correct.

The British spelling makes more sense to us, since “likable” looks as though it should be pronounced LICK-able. Besides, the silent “e” is retained in other suffixed forms: “likely,” “likelihood,” “likeness,” “likewise.”

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Etymology Punctuation Spelling

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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Etymology Pronunciation Spelling Usage

Puce abuse

Q: The word “puce” came up recently and everyone (with varying degrees of certainty) thought it was a shade of purple. But there was a lingering doubt in at least one mind that it might be a shade of green. A Google search turned up enough “puce green” references to suggest this is a common error. What’s the story?

A: “Puce” is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “a dark purple brown or brownish purple colour.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), has a similar, not very attractive-sounding definition: “a deep red to dark grayish purple.”

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) calls it “a dark red.”

Where do we stand on puce? We say it’s the color of an eggplant.

But you’re right that a bit of googling turns up lots of references to “puce green,” including many photos of objects in various shades of green (like a VW bus that’s lime green).

Where does this green business come from? Beats us.

A few people have speculated online about the supposed similarity of the words “puce,” “puke,” and “pus.” But we can’t find any reliable source that has commented on this heady issue.

By the way, the etymology of “puce” isn’t very enticing. Literally it means flea-colored.

In French, puce means “flea,” and the French expression couleur puce means “the colour resembling that of a flea,” the OED says.

We’ve never gotten close enough to a flea to determine its color. But apparently the French have, so we’ll take their word for it.

In the OED’s earliest citation for the word in English, it’s used as a noun.

Here’s the quotation, from Thomas Holcroft’s 1781 translation of the Comtesse de Genlis’s Theatre Education : “I love none but gay colours, I cannot endure the prune de Monsieur, and the puce.”

Oxford’s first recorded use of the adjective is from a 1787 account in the Daily Universal Register, as the Times of London was then known: “A broad embroidered border on puce sattin.”

The OED’s most recent citation for the word, used in a compound phrase, is from a 2005 issue of the British Cosmopolitan:

“Vibrators have been known to actually fly across the departure-lounge floor … only to be picked up by staff and returned to the puce-coloured proprietor.”

Aren’t you glad you asked?

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Pronunciation Spelling Usage

Why do dictionaries accessorize the alphabet?

Q: Why aren’t the 26 unadorned letters of our alphabet enough for the people who write dictionaries? What bothers me is looking up a word and finding foreign accents or funny pronouncing squiggles. Of course, I’d like to have every dictionary bend to my will. Thanks for letting me get this off my chest!

A: Consider it off your chest! But we have to stick up for the dictionaries here.

In spelling words derived from foreign languages (mostly French), some dictionaries retain the accent marks and some do not, based on prevalent practices in common usage. Most of the time, alternative spellings are offered.

In The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), for instance, you’ll find “chateau, also château,” but later you’ll find “cliché, also cliche.”

The “also” means the second spelling is less common although both are correct. So the lexicographers at American Heritage think “cliché” is clinging to its accent (at least for now), but not “chateau.”

Over time, you can expect that most borrowings into English will become thoroughly Anglicized and lose their accent marks.

If you’d like a quick reference to the most frequently used accent (or “diacritical”) marks, we did a recent blog entry on the subject (go to the end of the post).

There are tables on the Internet that can show you how to type in accented letters on your PC or Mac. (Sometimes the fastest way to reproduce an accented word is to copy one from another document.)

As for the unusual-looking symbols that dictionaries use to give pronunciations of words, there’s a reason those are there, too.

The editors feel that these symbols provide a tidy, economical, and consistent system for advising readers how words are pronounced.

And it’s easy enough to tell how the symbols sound.

Just glance at the pronunciation key that appears in the lower-right corner of every right-hand page in American Heritage (or in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed.).

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Etymology Spelling Usage

No, it’s not spelled d-i-l-e-m-n-a

Q: You say in Origins of the Specious that “dilemma” is the proper spelling of the word for a situation with unpalatable choices. I’ve always spelled it “dilemna” and that’s the spelling in a Modern Library paperback of Robinson Crusoe that claims to follow the original 18th-century edition except for the long s’s. Any help?

A: The proper spelling of the word is and always has been “dilemma,” not “dilemna.”

Besides writing about the misspelling in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths, we’ve discussed it in a blog posting.

The misspelling does turn up in print, though rarely. We’ve found two 1719 printings of Robinson Crusoe online that spell the word with an “n,” which has to mean that either Defoe or his printer made a mistake.

We think the error was the printer’s, because Defoe correctly spelled “dilemma” in some of his earlier works.

For example, he used the word in An Essay Upon Projects (1697). Here’s the passage, in a section about unfortunate widows:

“ … the Poor Young Woman, it may be, has Three or Four Children, and is driven to a thousand shifts, while he lies in the Mint or Friars under the Dilemma of a Statute of Bankrupt; but if he Dies, then she is absolutely Undone, unless she has Friends to go to.”

And here it is again, in Defoe’s novel The Compleat Mendicant, or, Unhappy Beggar (1699):

“Being now deliver’d from this strange Dilemma, which, notwithstanding, had exhausted all my Stock; Moneyless, Friendless, and Disconsolate I wander from one place to another….”

Both of those quotations were copied from facsimile pages, as originally published, and available in the Early English Books Online database. We’ve left out Defoe’s italics and the long s’s that look like f’s.

The word appears only once, early on, in Volume 1 of Robinson Crusoe.

There were six authorized editions of the novel published in 1719 (we found only two of them), and at least some had “errata” that were later corrected.

The two early versions we found were both published in 1719 by W. Taylor in London, one labeled “third edition” and one “fourth edition.”

Here’s how the relevant passage reads in both of them:

“In this Dilemna, as I was very pensive, I stept into the Cabin, and sat me down, Xury having the Helm, when on a sudden the Boy cry’d out Master, Master, a Ship with a Sail, …” (Again, we didn’t reproduce Defoe’s italics or those picturesque long s’s.)

The spelling is corrected to “dilemma” in every later edition of the book that we’ve been able to find, from the 1790s onward.

Robinson Crusoe was wildly popular from the beginning, and those early authorized editions were followed by scores of others.

In some, publishers took great liberties, making cuts and changing Defoe’s wording, phraseology, paragraphing, and more.

But later, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, versions appeared that were advertised as authentic and based on the original texts. All of the them that we found used the correct “dilemma” spelling.

For example, “dilemma” was used in editions published in London in 1810 and 1815 that restored Defoe’s original wording (as quoted above).

Another edition, published in London in 1866 with antiquated spellings and capitalizations, uses “dilemma.” This edition claimed to be “edited after the original editions,” and the editor said it had been collated from the 1719 texts.

That 1866 edition is virtually identical to two others (London, 1882 and 1905), both claiming to have been taken from the 1719 texts and edited by the Victorian novelist Henry Kingsley.

In summary, all of those early versions said to be “edited after the original” used the correct spelling of “dilemma.”

We haven’t seen the Modern Library paperback. If, as you say, the editors used the incorrect spelling, we can only note that the editors of other “authentic” editions chose to use the correct spelling.

In case you’re interested, Michael Quinion has written about the “dilemma/dilemna” phenomenon on his website World Wide Words.

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Etymology Spelling

Shtick figures

Q: “Shtick” or “schtick”? And why? Both words return about the same number of search results in Google, so I guess one is a variant of the other, with each being common enough to be considered correct. But which is “more” correct?

A: The two standard dictionaries we consult the most list those two spellings, “shtick” and “schtick,” plus one more, “shtik.”

All three of the spellings are considered standard English. But which, you ask, is “more” standard?

Well, “shtick” is the first spelling given in both references, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

Each of the dictionaries adds the following words: “also schtick or shtik.”

In dictionaryese, an “also” spelling out of alphabetical order (like “schtick”) and others that follow (like “shtik”) are considered secondary or unequal variants—spellings that occur less often but are still considered standard.

So you could perhaps describe “shtick” as “more” standard than the other spellings, though we wouldn’t and neither would the lexicographers at the two dictionaries.

Why so many spellings? Because the English word is borrowed from Yiddish, which is written in Hebrew letters and has to transliterated into our alphabet.

In Yiddish, a “shtick” is a piece, a part of something, a bit of misconduct, a trick, or an attention-getting gimmick used by an entertainer.

In English, it usually refers to a comic routine, a characteristic activity, an attention-getting trait, or a special talent.

The Yiddish term is derived from the German stück (a piece of something or a play in the theatrical sense), which is descended from similar words in old Germanic languages. In fact, the Old English word for piece is stycce.

Leo Rosten, who spells the word shtik in his 1968 book The Joys of Yiddish, also includes the diminutive shtikl, the “more diminutive” shtikeleh, and the plural shtiklech.

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Etymology Linguistics Pronunciation Spelling Usage

An ædifying history

Q: I enjoyed your recent discussion of the diaeresis and other diacritical marks. How about the archaic form “æ”? Is it pronounced with one sound or two? Where is it from? French? German? Is it useful or just cute? Can it be properly written as “ae”? Should we wax nostalgic for æroplanes?

A: When the letters “a” and “e” are printed as one squished-together symbol—“æ”—they form what is known as a digraph (a two-letter symbol) or a ligature.

This symbol represents a diphthong—one sound gliding into another within the same syllable. (We mentioned diphthongs in that blog entry about the diaeresis.)

Words once spelled with “æ” are rarely seen that way today because their spellings have been modernized. And that’s largely because pronunciations have changed and those diphthongs no longer exist.

You mentioned “æroplane,” which is one way that word was spelled in the Wright brothers’ day. It was also spelled as “aeroplane” and sometimes as “aëroplane.”

The “ær” at the beginning of “æroplane” would have rhymed with “payer.” The full word would have been pronounced something like AY-er-o-plain.

Those early spellings (“æroplane,” “aeroplane,” “aëroplane”) reflected the fact that the first syllable had an audible diphthong. Now that it doesn’t, we spell the word “airplane.”

Similarly, the word “æon,” meaning a long period of time, became “aeon” and now is usually spelled “eon.” The word “æsthetic” became “aesthetic” and is now often spelled “esthetic.”

There are scores of other examples. In some cases, the former “æ” words are now spelled with two separate letters (“ae”). But in most, only one letter has been retained, usually the “e.”

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, English has had two different kinds of “æ” in its history, one from Old English and one from Latin.

The Old English “æ” was not a diphthong. It represented the sound of “a simple vowel, intermediate between a and e,” the OED says. This symbol died out by about 1300, when it was replaced in new spellings by “a,” “e,” or “ee.”

But another “æ” symbol—the one we’re talking about here—was introduced in the 16th century, this time in spellings of English words derived from Latin or Greek.

The symbol was used where the original diphthong was spelled æ in Latin or ?? in Greek.

But here again, the “æ” symbol didn’t last long in English.

As the OED explains, it had only etymological value—that is, it showed a word’s classical ancestry. Once these words became “thoroughly English,” the OED says, so did their spellings.

We still see both “æ” and “ae” in Latin and Greek proper names: “Æneas” and “Aeneas”; “Æsop” and “Aesop”; “Cæsar” and “Caesar.”

But most often the “æ” became “ae” and finally just “e.” Thus the word once spelled “ædify” is now “edify,” and “æther” is now “ether.”

One final example. The word originally spelled “encyclopædia” became “encyclopaedia” and finally, in most modern spellings, “encyclopedia.”

But in this case, says the OED, the whiff of antiquity clings to the word:

“The spelling with æ has been preserved from becoming obsolete by the fact that many of the works so called have Latin titles.”

The most familiar of these living relics is the Encyclopædia Britannica.

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Etymology Linguistics Pronunciation Spelling Usage

Why isn’t a W called a double V?

Q: Why is the letter “w” called “double u”? It looks like a “double v” to me.

A: The name of the 23rd letter of the English alphabet is “double u” because it was originally written that way in Anglo-Saxon times.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains it, the ancient Roman alphabet did not have a letter “w.”

So in the 7th century, when the Latin alphabet was first used in early Old English writing, it was necessary to invent a symbol to represent that sound.

At first, the sound was represented by “uu”—literally a double “u.”

It wasn’t written as a “v” because the letter “v” didn’t exist in Old English, as we’ve written before on the blog. And a double “v” would not have approximated the sound anyway.

The “uu” was replaced by another symbol in the 8th century, ƿ, a character from the runic alphabet called a wynn.

In the 11th century, according to the OED, the old “uu” form was reintroduced by Norman scribes in a ligatured (that is, joined) form, written as “w.”

In early versions of “Cædmon’s Hymn,” which originated in the seventh century and is considered the oldest recorded Old English poem, “w” is written as “uu” in two words, uuldurfadur (glorious father) and uundra (wonder). Here’s an excerpt from a manuscript written in the 730s:

“Nu scylun hergan hefaenricaes uard / metudæs maecti end his modgidanc / uerc uuldurfadur sue he uundra gihuaes / eci dryctin or astelidæ” (“Now we must praise the heavenly kingdom’s guardian, / the creator’s might and his conception, / the creation of the wondrous father, thus each of the wonders / that he ordained at the beginning”).

In later Old English documents the two words are written either with the runic ƿ (ƿuldor fæder, ƿundra) or a “w” ligature (wuldorfæder, wundra).

But no matter how the “w” has been written, the OED says, “It has never lost its original name of ‘double U.’ ”

[This post was updated on Dec. 20, 2022.)

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Etymology Linguistics Punctuation Spelling Usage

Worl-dwide English?

Q: A few days ago I saw “worldwide” hyphenated as “worl-dwide” in a book. Is this an artifact of a computer spell-check program?

A: We’ve written before on our blog about some of the oddities of hyphenation, including postings last year on Jan. 15 and July 25.

As we note, hyphenations change, and different publishers may treat the same compound differently.

You’ll find “world-wide” in some places and “worldwide” in others. Generally, as compounds become more familiar over time, they tend to lose  their hyphens. So “world wide” becomes “world-wide” and eventually “worldwide.”

Now, a case like “worl-dwide” is a simple typographical error.

We’d guess that a word the publisher treated as a solid compound (“worldwide”) broke at the end of a line, and the typesetting program wasn’t properly programmed to hyphenate it correctly (“world-wide”).

In most cases, line-break errors in manuscripts are caught by proofreaders before publication. But strays can and do slip through the cracks.

If “worl-dwide” appeared in the middle of a line of text in a book, the error would be more unusual. We can’t begin to guess how that would happen!

A book is one thing, the Internet something else. We googled “worl-dwide” the other day and got 23,000 hits, most of them written as two words. Yikes!

A few examples: “Dhl Worl Dwide Express (Dubai)” … “RATED AS A TOP 10 DJ WORL DWIDE” … “Worl dWide PR.”

We won’t bother with links, since this posting may prod the miscreants to mend the errors of their ways.

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Etymology Spelling Usage

Why did the Emperor of Russia rusticate?

Q: In my dotage, I’ve finally gotten around to reading The Innocents Abroad. A few things jumped out at me. Spelling differences: “staid” for “stayed,” “ancles” for “ankles,” etc. And strange usages, especially a reference to the Emperor of Russia “rusticating” at a watering hole. I know rusticate as an architectural term, but what was the Emperor doing at that watering hole?

A: One of the pleasures of reading 19th-century writing—British as well as American—is watching language change from generation to generation.

The spellings you found in The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain’s 1869 travel book, show just how fluid the conventions of English orthography can be.

Usage, too, changes over time. In 150 years, someone reading a 2011 newspaper will no doubt find a lot that looks odd, just as Twain’s use of “rusticating” looked odd to you.

In American English, we don’t use the verb “rusticate” much these days. But in the 18th and 19th centuries it had several meanings, some of which are still alive today in Britain, if seldom heard in the US.

For instance, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, one meaning of  “rusticate” is to “stay or sojourn in  the country,” as the Emperor did.

Here’s an example from an 1886 letter by the English artist Charles Samuel Keene: “I went and smoked a pipe with Challoner the other evening, and heard from Mrs. C that you were going to rusticate on some riverside.”

And in British usage, to be “rusticated” can mean to be sent to the country, or to be dismissed or suspended from a university as punishment. This is the OED’s definition of “rusticate” in its academic sense: “to dismiss or send down (a student) from university on a temporary basis, as a punishment; to suspend.”

Here it is in Trollope’s 1858 novel Doctor Thorne: “This son had been first rusticated from Oxford and then expelled.” Later OED examples extend into the 21st century.

“Rusticated” can also mean “countrified” or “rendered rustic in manners.”

In Washington Irving’s 1822 novel Bracebridge Hall, for example, a squire was “rusticated a little by living almost entirely on his estate.”

And, as you say, the term is still used in the architectural sense of giving masonry a rustic appearance by marking it with sunk joints or roughened surfaces.

John Ruskin, in The Stones of Venice (1851), alludes to this technique when he asks whether “Nature rusticates her foundations,” and answers himself by saying “She does rusticate sometimes” by crumbling foundations and leaving ripple marks.

A variation on this sense of the word has made its way into the art world. Since the 1930s, potters have used it to describe pottery deliberately roughened to look rustic.

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Etymology Linguistics Spelling Usage

‘Here’ to ‘herein’ to ‘hereinafter’

Q: I recently started a list of words that seem to be conglomerates of smaller words (e.g., albeit, heretofore, nonetheless, and whatsoever). I’m attaching the list. I’ve always liked this kind of word, albeit under the level of my consciousness. Can you tell me anything about them, as a group?

A: What a great list! These are compound words, made up of two or three smaller ones. Many of these got their start in Middle English, though some weren’t written as one word until a later period.

Compounds aren’t unusual in English. In fact, compounding is an important way that English forms new words, like “plainclothesman” and “counterclockwise” (both triple compounds).

Most of the ones on your list, like “aforementioned” and “heretofore,” are the kind we associate with the language of legislative acts, contracts, wills, and other legal documents. And not everybody likes them.

A recent New York Times article about the economist Alfred E. Kahn, who died in December, quoted him on this very subject. Kahn, a devotee of plain English, once wrote this in a memo to the lawyers and economists on his staff:

“Every time you’re tempted to use ‘herein’ or ‘hereinabout’ or ‘hereinunder’ or, similarly, ‘therein,’ ‘thereinabove’ or ‘thereinunder,’ and the corresponding variants, try ‘here’ or ‘there’ or ‘above’ or ‘below,’ and see if it doesn’t make just as much sense.”

Here (we won’t say “hereinunder”) is a look at some of the words in your collection, plus a few more. We’ll stick with the triple compounds.

“albeit” and the archaic “howbeit”: These were originally three-word phrases, “all be it” (circa 1385) and “how be it’ (1398). The first means something like “even though it be that” or “although.” The second means “however it may be” or “be that as it may.”

“inasmuch”: When it originated (before 1300), this was three separate words, “in as much.” But it’s been written as one word for most of its history. It’s generally followed by “as.” The phrase “inasmuch as” means “in view of the fact that” or “to the extent that” or “because.”

“insofar”: This was originally three words, “in so far” (1596), and it’s also followed by “as.” The meaning of “insofar as” is “to such an extent that” or “in such measure or degree as.”

“hereinafter”: This compound (1590) means “after this point in the document” or “hereafter.” The words “hereinbefore” (1687) and “hereinabove” (1768-74) are its cousins.

“heretofore”: This one (c. 1350) means “before this time” or “formerly.” It includes the obsolete compound “tofore” (before 900), which once meant “to the front of” or “before.”

“nevertheless”: This familiar combination dates from before 1382 and means “despite that” or “all the same” or “nonetheless” (see below).  And yes, it once had an opposite number, “neverthemore,” an obsolete word that meant “not at all” or “definitely not.”

“nonetheless”: This one dates from 1533 and means the same as “nevertheless.” It was preceded by earlier forms that combined “no” + “the” + “less” or “nought” + “the” + “less” and were written as “natheless,” “netheless,” “noutheless,” and so on.

“notwithstanding”: This isn’t really a triple compound, because the “with” of “withstand” is technically a verbal prefix instead of a word. But who cares? It dates back to before 1400 and means “in spite of” or “all the same.” The similar “noughtwithstanding” is even earlier, but it didn’t last.

“whatsoever”: This combination (c. 1250) means the same as “whatever.” Then why the “so”? Because “whatsoever” incorporates an earlier, archaic compound, “whatso” (“what” + “so”), which also meant “whatever,” and which survived in poetic usage into the early 20th century. (Example: “Despatches, sermons,—whatso goes / Into their brain comes out as prose,” from a 19th-century poem by the  pseudonymous Sylvanus Urban.)

“wherewithal”: This one (1535) combines “where” with an archaic compound, “withal” (“with” + “all”), which once meant “in addition” or “along with the rest” or “moreover.” Today the triple compound “wherewithal” is a noun for “necessary means,” as in “He didn’t have the wherewithal to pay his rent.”

Having written the aforementioned, we will hereinafter sign off.

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Etymology Linguistics Spelling Usage

The some of its parts

Q: Why do we use the word “some” when we approximate a number instead of, say, “about” or “nearly” or any of the other appropriate terms? Also, is this use of “some” related to “sum”?

A: English has a humongous number of words—hundreds of thousands, depending on how you count them—so it’s not surprising that we have a lot of ways to approximate a number.

The word “some” (originally spelled sum in Old English) has been used “with numbers to indicate an approximate amount or estimate” since Anglo-Saxon days, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED adds that “some” here is acting like an adverb “with the sense of ‘about, nearly, approximately.’ ”

The earliest published reference in the dictionary for this usage is from King Alfred’s translation (circa 888) of Boethius’ De Consolatione Philosophiae.

The use of “about” in this sense also dates from Anglo-Saxon days, but “nearly” didn’t show up in English until the 16th century. And it took another century for it to mean approximately.

As for “approximately” itself, this is the real newbie and didn’t show up in English until the mid-19th century.

You also asked whether “some” is related to “sum.”

Although “some” was spelled sum in Old English, as we noted above, the modern words “some” and “sum” aren’t related.

“Some” has cousins in many old Germanic languages, including Old Frisian, Old Saxon, and Old Norse. It may ultimately come from the Sanskrit sama (every, any).

“Sum,” on the other hand, entered English in the late 13th century. We got it from the Anglo-French summe or somme, but it ultimately comes from the Latin summa (total number or amount).

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Etymology Punctuation Spelling Usage

Lurve affair

Q: One of the participants at the Daily Beast’s recent “Reboot America!” conference was reported as saying the US needed “innovation and luurve.” I’ve never seen “luurve” and can’t find it in my dictionary. Is this a typo?

A: You won’t find this word in standard dictionaries, but it’s not a typo. The Oxford English Dictionary describes it as a chiefly British colloquial term for “love.”

The OED’s entry for this noun spells it “lurve,” but it gives “lerv,” “lurv,” “lurrve,” and “luurve” as other spellings.

The dictionary defines the word this way: “Romantic infatuation; sex; love. Freq. when regarded as being treated (esp. in films, pop music, fiction, etc.) in a hackneyed or clichéd manner.”

The OED says the term represents “an emphatic, humorous, or arch pronunciation” of the word “love.”

It adds that the pronunciation sometimes parodies “the slow, smooth, crooning” of “love” in popular songs, and may reflect “British perceptions of the U.S. pronunciation” of the word.

The earliest citation for the noun is from a 1936 issue of the Daily Mirror that describes a situation in which “(a) you’re in Lurve, but (b) you’re not sure he’s in Lurve with you.”

However, the OED has an entry for an older verb, with even more spellings, including some with the “u” or “r” occurring four or more times.

The first citation for the verb is from The War in the Air, a 1908 novel by H. G. Wells: “I am pleading the cause of a woman, a woman I lurve.”

Here’s an example of a three-“u” version from a 1989 issue of the British magazine Q: “I luuurve that jacket, Bobby!”

And here’s a three-“r” version from Helen Fielding’s 1996 novel Bridget Jones’s Diary: “I kept saying the words, ‘Self-respect’ and ‘Hug’ over and over till I was dizzy, trying to barrage out, ‘But I lurrrve him.’ ”

Although the word in its various guises is mainly seen in Britain, it’s not unknown in the US as you’ve noticed.

And the usage may survive—in whole or in part—when a British book crosses the Atlantic.

For example, Luuurve Is a Many Trousered Thing, a book for teens by the British writer Louise Rennison, arrived in the US with the title Love Is a Many Trousered Thing.

But Rennison’s labor of “luuurve” wasn’t entirely lost. The word appears throughout the text of the American edition.

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Spelling Usage

It’s definitely not “definately”

Q: A recent comment on the Web said journalists should “definately” be more careful about their English. This misspelling is ubiquitous, yet every time I see it I am thrown into mental gymnastics to assure myself it is not supposed to be “defiantly.”

A: Yes, “definately” is a very common error. Bryan A. Garner, in Garner’s Modern American Usage (3d ed.), lists 104 of what he sees as the most commonly misspelled words in English, and “definitely” is one of them.

You’re not alone in puzzling over whether “definately” may sometimes be a misspelling of “defiantly,” rather than “definitely.”

It seems that some older spell-checkers have suggested “defiantly” as the proper spelling of “definately.” As a result, you can find many inappropriate appearances of “defiantly” in writing.

In fact, there’s even a term, the Cupertino effect, for this penchant of spell-checkers to recommend inappropriate words to replace those that are misspelled or unrecognized.

The term refers to the inclination of some ancient spell-checkers to change “cooperation” (which used to be hyphenated) to “Cupertino” (the home of Apple).

As for “definately,” lots of people have noticed this error. Here’s a passage from a recent article by Lori Fradkin, a former copy editor at New York magazine, in which she describes her inability to stop spotting errors.

“I know it’s all a little once-a-copy-editor-always-a-copy-editor, but I can’t help it if I think unnecessary quotes are funny, as if signs are trying to be ironic. Or if I’m turned off by guys who spell it ‘definately.’ I don’t sit around and diagram sentences for fun or keep a dog-eared copy of Strunk & White on my nightstand. But I continue to empathize with other copy editors when I spot typos in their publications because I’ve definitely been there.”

So have we! (We were once copy editors.)

PS: The article that we cited is on the AWL, a New York-based website whose motto (“intended with some humor”) is “Be Less Stupid.” (The website is named after that little thingy one uses to punch holes.)

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English language Etymology Grammar Linguistics Spelling Style Usage

Honey, I sunk the boat

[Note: A later post on this subject appeared on May 24, 2019. And an updated post about “shrink,” “shrank,” and “shrunk” was published on Jan. 2, 2020.]

Q: I’ve noticed that even the best-edited publications sometimes use “sunk” instead of “sank” for the past tense of “sink.” This leaves me with a sinking feeling. What can we do about the loss of a perfectly good four-letter word that can be spoken in any company?

A: Both “sank” and “sunk” are accepted for the past tense of “sink” in American English. The two are listed, in that order, as equal variants in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), and Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed.).

So it’s correct to say either “the boat sank” or “the boat sunk.” The past participle is “sunk,” as in “the boat has sunk” or “the boat was sunk.”

In case you’re wondering, the same is true for “shrink.” The same three American dictionaries  allow either “shrank” or “shrunk” in the past tense.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says “shrunk” is “undoubtedly standard” in the past tense, though the preference in written usage seems to be for “shrank.”

In 1995, William Safire drew catcalls from the “Gotcha!” gang for using “shrunk” in the past tense in the New York Times. Why did he do it? Here’s how he explained it:

“Because Walt Disney got to me, I guess: the 1989 movie Honey, I Shrunk the Kids did to ‘shrank’ what Winston cigarettes did to ‘as’: pushed usage in the direction of what people were casually saying rather than what they were carefully writing.”

But back to “sunk,” which has bounced back and forth in acceptability over the centuries. Arguments over it are nothing new. For instance, we found a spirited defense of “sunk” in the past tense in an 1895 issue of the journal The Writer.

In the history of English, the use of “sunk” in the past tense has been “extremely common,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In fact, the OED cites Samuel Johnson’s dictionary of 1755 as giving the past tense as “I sunk, anciently sank.”

Johnson himself used “sunk” as the past tense, as in this citation from his treatise Taxation No Tyranny (1775): “The constitution sunk at once into a chaos.”

But Johnson was right: “anciently,” to use his word, the accepted past tense was indeed “sank.”

The verb was sincan in Old English, with the past tense sanc and the past participle suncon or suncen.

The old past tense seems to have been preserved into Middle English, the form of the language spoken between 1100 and 1500.

Here’s an example from Arthur and Merlin (circa 1330): “Wawain on the helme him smot, / The ax sank depe, god it wot.”

But in modern English, both “sank” and “sunk” have appeared as past tenses, and “sunk” may even have been preferred in literary usage. Here’s Dickens, for example: “ ‘Cold punch,’ murmured Mr. Pickwick, as he sunk to sleep again” (The Pickwick Papers, 1836).

The usage can be found in the Bible (1611): “The stone sunke into his forehead.” And here it is in Sir William Jones’s poem Seven Fountains (1767): “The light bark, and all the airy crew, / Sunk like a mist beneath the briny dew.”

“Sunk” was used by Addison and Steele in the Spectator in the 18th century, and by Sir Walter Scott in the 19th.

In fact, Scott’s novels are full of “sunk,” as in this passage from The Heart of Midlothian (1818): “Jeanie sunk down on a chair, with clasped hands, and gasped in agony.”

Today, the British prefer to reserve “sunk” for the past participle and use “sank” for the past tense, so the preferred progression in contemporary British English is “sink/sank/sunk.”

The lexicographer Robert Burchfield, writing in Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.), sums up the state of things in British English. The past tense, he writes, “is now overwhelmingly sank rather than sunk.” And today the preferred past participle is “sunk,” not the old “sunken.”

It seems that in American usage, too, most people prefer “sank” as the past tense, even though dictionaries allow “sunk.” As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says, “Sank is used more often, but sunk is neither rare nor dialectal as a past tense, though it is usually a past participle.”

Some commentators have suggested that the return of the “sink/sank/sunk” progression (along with a distaste for “sunk” as a past tense) may have been influenced by the similar irregular verbs “drink/drank/drunk,” “swim/swam/swum,” “ring/rang/rung,” and others.

This common pattern, by the way, probably inspired “brang” and “flang” as illegitimate past tenses of “bring” and “fling.”

And it probably also brought about “snuck,” the much-reviled past tense of “sneak,” which dictionaries now accept as standard English and which we’ve written about before on the blog.

To recap, these days it’s no crime (at least in American English) to say “the boat sunk in a storm” or “my  jeans shrunk in the dryer.”

But the grammar police will still fine you for using a past participle when the simple past tense is appropriate, as in “The bell rung” or “I drunk the milk” or “She sung off key.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Pronunciation Spelling Usage Word origin Writing

The daughter of time

Q: On a recent Leonard Lopate show, you indicated that the silent “gh” in “daughter” derives from Anglo-Saxon. That got me to wondering: Is this English “gh” related to the German “ch” in tochter? The “ch” is pronounced in German, and makes a rough, throaty sound.

A: Yes, “daughter” came into English from Germanic sources (English being a Germanic language, after all). And, as I must have mentioned on WNYC, the silent “gh” in “daughter” was at one time sounded too.

“Daughter,” which was dohtor in Old English in the eighth century, has Germanic cognates (think of them as cousins) in Old Saxon (dohtar), Old Frisian (dochter), Old and Middle High German (tohter), Old Icelandic (dottir), Gothic (dauhtar), and of course modern German (tochter).

Cognates from outside the Germanic languages are found in Greek (thygater), Sanskrit (duhita), Persian (duxtar), Lithuanian (dukte), and Old Slavic (dusti). All have their origins in an ancient Indo-European root.

“Daughter” has had several pronunciations over the centuries, including DOCH-ter (with the first syllable like the Scottish “loch”), DAFF-ter (rhyming with “laughter”) and DAW-ter, the one we have today.

The word history above comes from the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology. If you’d like to read more, I wrote a blog entry earlier this year about the “gh” combination and how it has developed since Middle English.

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Slang Spelling Usage Word origin

Phoo, pfui, and phooey

Q: I recently saw “phewey” used on Twitter to imply “oh, darn!” I don’t think it’s a word. When my daughter says “phew,” she’s relieved that something has ended or never happened. Am I right that the Twitter posting person (who is NOT a twit) should have used “fooey” or “phooey”?

A: The word the twitterer should have used is “phooey.” The spelling “phewey” definitely doesn’t fill the bill. “Phew” would rhyme with “few” instead of “foo.”

Believe it or not, “phooey” has a respectable lineage as an English interjection, and its beginnings may go back to the 1600s.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the expression “phoo” was first recorded in 1672, and defines it as “expressing contemptuous rejection, cursory dismissal (of a proposition, idea, etc.), disagreement, or reproach.”

The first person to use it in writing, as far as we know, was George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham, who along with several collaborators wrote a satirical play called The Rehearsal, staged in 1671 and published in 1672. The quote: “Phoo! that is to raise the character of Drawcansir.”

The word has continued to appear in fictional dialogue ever since. Here’s Oliver Goldsmith, in his novel The Vicar of Wakefield (1766): “‘Phoo, Charles,’ interrupted she, ‘all that is very true.’ ” And here’s Jane Austen, in Mansfield Park (1814): “Phoo! Phoo! Do not be so shamefaced.”

The expression was also used to mean something like “darn!” as in this quotation from Maria Edgeworth’s novel Castle Rackrent (1800): “Phoo, I’ve cut myself with this razor.”

In the mid-19th century, some writers began using a similar word, “pfui,” adopted from a German word (pfui) that means the same thing: “an emphatic expression of contempt, disgust, or cursory dismissal,” according to the OED.

Here’s William Makepeace Thackeray, writing in the Cornhill Magazine in 1864: “Pfui! For a month before my lord’s arrival I had been knocking at all doors to see if I could find my poor wandering lady behind them.”

Both “phoo” and “pfui” continued to be used through 20th century. The most recent citations for both in the OED are from the 1990s.

The spelling “phooey” first showed up in 1919 in a caption appearing in the Sandusky (Ohio) Star-Journal: “Phooey! That’s old stuff – she told me pers’n’ly that all of them ‘sweet patootie’ letters was forged.” Was this just a new spelling of the old “pfui”? We can’t tell for sure.

The lyricist Lorenz Hart was apparently fond of the word. He used it in the song “A Melican Man” in 1926: “Give Chinee man this chop suey / He’ll refuse it and say ‘Phooey’!” The following year, in the song “Whoopsie,” he used it to mean “mad” or “crazy”: “When ev’ry thing’s gaflooey / And life is simply phooey…”

All of these words (the English “phoo,” “phooey,” and “pfui,” as well as the German pfui) are “imitative,” the OED says. They imitate the action of dismissively puffing or blowing through the lips.

We can’t vouch for their ultimate derivations or even say for sure that the English versions are essentially the same word. The OED has separate entries for each, merely directing the reader to “compare” them.

There may not be a paper trail here, but our hunch is that they’re the same animal with different spots.

By the way, spellings vary widely with many such imitative words. If you’re interested, we ran a blog entry last year about a few other words that mimic interjections.

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English language Etymology Linguistics Pronunciation Spelling Usage Word origin Writing

Why don’t “laughter” and “daughter” rhyme?

Q: Why do words like “caught,” “ought,” “thought,” “bought,” “naught,” “laugh,” and “should” have endings with no bearing on the way the words sound?

A: I think you’ve asked a much larger and more complicated question than you realize!

Our spelling system began as an attempt to reproduce speech. But because most spellings became fixed centuries ago, they no longer reflect exact pronunciations.

As a result, spelling is about more than pronunciation; it also reflects a word’s meaning and etymology and history. And in the case of English words, their spellings often have very idiosyncratic histories hidden within.

You mention “caught,” “ought” and others. The appearance of “gh” in words like these is annoying to people who’d like to reform English spelling. Many wonder, for example, why “laughter” and “daughter” don’t rhyme. Well, they once did.

“Daughter” has had several pronunciations over the centuries, including DOCH-ter (with the first syllable like the Scottish “loch”), DAFF-ter (rhyming with “laughter’”) and DAW-ter. We know which one survived.

The Middle English letter combination “gh” is now pronounced either as “f” (as in “cough/trough/laugh/enough”) or not at all (“slaughter/daughter/ought/through,” etc.).

The word “night,” to use another example, went through dozens of spellings over 600 years, from nact and nigt and niht, and so on, eventually to “night” around 1300. It’s a cousin not only to the German nacht but probably to the Greek nyktos and the Old Irish innocht, among many others.

The odd-looking consonants in the middle of “night” (as well as “right” and “bright”) were once pronounced with a guttural sound somewhere between the modern “g” and “k.” But though the pronunciation moved on, the spelling remained frozen in time.

You also mention “should,” a word in which the letter “l” looks entirely superfluous. But the “l” in “should” and “would” was once pronounced (as it was in “walk,” “chalk,” “talk,” and other words).

Same goes for the “w” in “sword” and the “b” in “climb.” They were once pronounced. Similarly, the “k” in words like “knife,” “knee,” and “knave” was not originally silent. It was once softly pronounced. But while pronunciation changed, spelling did not.

There are several reasons that English spellings and pronunciations differ so markedly.

Much of our modern spelling had its foundation in the Middle English period (roughly 1100 to 1500). But in the late Middle English and early Modern English period (roughly 1350 to 1550), the pronunciation of vowels underwent a vast upheaval.

Linguists call this the Great Vowel Shift, and it’s too complicated to go into in much detail here. To use one example, before the Great Vowel Shift the word “food” sounded like FODE (rhymes with “road”).

Melinda J. Menzer’s Furman University website can tell you more about the Great Vowel Shift. I’ve also touched on it briefly in a blog item.

While the pronunciations of many words changed dramatically, their spellings remained largely the same. Why? Because printing, which was introduced into England in the late 1400s, helped retain and standardize those older spellings.

Complicating matters even further, the first English printer, William Caxton, employed typesetters from Holland who introduced their own oddities (the “h” in “ghost” is an example, borrowed from Flemish).

In addition, silent letters were introduced into some English words as afterthoughts to underscore their classical origins. This is why “debt” and “doubt” have a “b” (inserted to reflect their Latin ancestors debitum and dubitare).

Sometimes, a letter was erroneously added to reflect an imagined classical root. This is why “island” has an “s” (a mistaken connection to the Latin isola). I’ve written a blog entry about this.

Still other English spellings came about in the Middle Ages when scribes found that the letters “m,” “n,” “u,” and “i” caused readers difficulty because of all those vertical downstrokes of the pen (“m” + “I” was hard to tell from “n” + “u”). So “o” was substituted for “u” in words like “come,” “some,” “monk,” son,” and “wolf.”

Apart from ease of reading, “o” was sometimes swapped for “u” because, as Dennis Freeborn writes in his book From Old English to Standard English, “u was an overused letter. It represented the sound v as well as u, and uu was used for w.”

Another authority, David Crystal, has pointed out that England’s “civil service of French scribes” following the Norman Conquest in the 11th century also influenced the spelling of English words.

Crystal writes in his book The Fight for English that not only did consonants change (the French “qu” replaced the Old English “cw” in words like “queen,” to use just one example), but vowels “were written in a great number of ways.”

“Much of the irregularity of modern English spelling derives from the forcing together of Old English and French systems of spelling in the Middle Ages,” he says.

As you can see, this is a vast subject. In summary, spellings eventually settle into place and become standardized, but pronunciations are more mercurial and likely to change.

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English English language Etymology Spelling Usage Word origin

A dilemma inside an enigma

Q: I have a question that has plagued me since childhood: Has the spelling of “dilemma” changed in the past 35 or so years? I could have sworn that it was “dilemna” when I learned to spell in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. I remember this because I used to pronounce it phonetically – i.e., “di-lem-na” – as a joke.

A: Welcome to the Twilight Zone!

The word “dilemma,” which has been in English since the 1500s, has always been spelled with a double m. And yet legions of English-speakers from around the world not only spell it “dilemna,” but also (and here’s where Rod Serling steps out from behind a tree) INSIST that their teachers drummed this into them and ridiculed any “mistaken” efforts to spell it with two m’s.

No matter what you were taught, the correct spelling is “dilemma.” The word is derived from the Greek di (twice) and lemma (assumption). What it means, as you probably know, is a choice between two or more alternatives, all unfavorable. (Despite the “di” prefix, the word is now widely accepted as applying to more than two choices.) The alternatives are sometimes called the “horns” of the dilemma.

I’ve checked the Oxford English Dictionary for any variant spellings of the word, but the only “dilemna” I found was in a book on logic written by Thomas Wilson in 1551, and that was probably a typo, since printing was rather primitive in those days and spellings were sometimes arbitrary. I’ve also checked every other dictionary I have, including some bizarre 19th-century ones. No dice. Or, rather, no “dilemna.”

But in googling for “dilemna,” I got hundreds of hits, including the CNN headline “Seoul’s Missile Dilemna,” and in searching the New York Times archive, I found 11 appearances of “dilemna” since 1981.

Mostly, though, I find cries in the wilderness from people (both American and British) whose teachers apparently insisted on the spelling “dilemna” so vigorously that it became engraved on their brains! Who were these teachers and where did they get this harebrained idea? Did they (on both sides of the Atlantic) descend from a single Proto-Teacher born on another planet?

The odd “mn” spelling does have parallels in English: “condemn,” “solemn,” “alumna,” “limn,” “autumn,” “indemnity,” and others. Oddly, I came across many language sites noting that the French for “dilemma” is dilemme, yet the word is widely misspelled in France as dilemne. As one site pointed out, “En effet, la forme ‘dilemne’ n’existe pas.” This gets curiouser and curiouser.

Some things, and this apparently is one of them, are beyond me. I can’t account for the bizarre phenomenon of so very many people being taught – and taught INSISTENTLY – that “dilemna” is correct. If I ever become enlightened on this mysterious subject, I’ll report back!

With apologies to Winston Churchill, this is a dilemma, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.

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English English language Etymology Spelling Usage Word origin

Is it “-able” or “-ible”?

[Note: A later and more complete post on this subject was published on Jan. 6, 2016.]

Q: Is there a rule for remembering the correct spellings of words ending in “-able” or “-ible”? You know, words like “portable,” “possible,” “manageable,” “delectable,” “suitable.” Hmm… Now I’m having trouble coming up with another “-ible.” Perhaps treating “able” as the norm and remembering the “-ible” exceptions will do it?

A: There’s no rule, exactly, for telling the “-ables” from the “-ibles.” Often a word derived from a Germanic source (Old Dutch, Old Icelandic, Old Norse, and so on) will end in “-able,” like “forgivable,” which comes from Old English.

If a word is derived directly from Latin, however, it might be spelled one way or the other. It generally will end in “-able” if the  original Latin verb ended in “-are.” And it will probably end in “-ible” if  the  original Latin verb ended in “-ere” or “-ire.” 

That accounts for English words like “legible,” from the Latin legere (“read”), “collectible,” from colligere (“gather”), and “potable,” from potare (“drink”).

There are exceptions, though. And not many of us know automatically whether a word is derived from Latin or Old English. Only one thing is certain: there are far more “-ables” than “-ibles.” The best rule to follow is this: When in doubt, look it up.

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Nerds of America

[Note: This post was updated on Sept. 24, 2020.]

Q: I was listening to a discussion on WNYC about the word “nerd” and began thinking of when I first heard the term. I’m a baby boomer and don’t remember encountering it in grammar school, high school, or college. I believe I first heard the word on the TV show Happy Days. Did I miss something or did “nerd” originate on the sitcom?

A: You must have had your mind on other things. Happy Days was on the air from the mid-’70s to the mid-’80s, but the word “nerd” (sometimes spelled “nurd” in its early days) originated in the United States in the early ’50s.

That’s about the only thing certain about “nerd.” Its origin has been much disputed and we may never know the real story.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes “nerd” as a “mildly derogatory” slang term for “an insignificant, foolish, or socially inept person” or one “who is boringly conventional or studious.” The word nowadays also has a more specific meaning, the dictionary adds: “a person who pursues an unfashionable or highly technical interest with obsessive or exclusive dedication.”

The first published citation for “nerd” in the OED is from an article in Newsweek (Oct. 8, 1951): “In Detroit, someone who once would be called a drip or a square is now, regrettably, a nerd.”

[Update: The Newsweek quotation suggests that the word was already attracting notice, at least in Detroit. In fact, the author and Yale Law School librarian Fred Shapiro spotted this slightly earlier example in the Detroit Free Press: “If the person in question (formerly known as a square) is really impossible, he’s probably a ‘nerd’ ” (Oct. 7, 1951).]

The OED mentions one plausible origin and several others that are more doubtful.

The plausible one suggests that “nerd” was inspired by a fictional character of the same name in a Dr. Seuss book, If I Ran the Zoo, published in 1950. The Nerd in the children’s book, according to the OED, was “depicted as a small, unkempt, humanoid creature with a large head and a comically disapproving expression.” That sounds pretty nerdlike.

Less likely, the OED says, are suggestions that “nerd” is an alteration of “turd” or that it is back-slang for “drunk” (which contains the letters n-u-r-d) or that it is derived from the name of the ventriloquist Edgar Bergen’s dummy Mortimer Snerd.

Here are some “nerd”-related word formations, from Green’s Dictionary of Slang and the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang: the adjectives “nerdy” (1960s) and “nerdly” (1990s) are self-explanatory; the verb “to nerd” (1980s) means to study, but “to nerd around” (1970s) is to goof off; a “nerd magnet” (1980s) is a woman who attracts nerds; a “nerd pack” (1980s) is a pocket protector for holding pens.

We don’t recall hearing “nerd” during our school careers, either (Stewart, class of ’63; Pat, ’71). But we remember the type—the guys who spent all their spare time in the library or lab, didn’t party or do drugs, studied like fiends, got great grades, and went on to become zillionaires in Silicon Valley or on Wall Street. We think they got the last laugh.

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Do you pronounce ‘t’ in ‘often’?

Q: I just discovered your site and I plan to return often. Oh, that reminds me – it makes me crazy to hear people pronounce the “t” in “often.”

A: The word “often” can be pronounced with a silent “t” (the more common pronunciation) or with an audible “t.” How “correct” is the second pronunciation? That depends on the dictionary you consult.

Both are correct, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.).

However, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) treats the version with the audible “t” as a variant that occurs in educated speech but is considered unacceptable by some. [Update, May 25, 2018: The online edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary has dropped that label and now has the word “nonstandard” before the second pronunciation.]

American Heritage has an interesting usage note after its entry for “often.” During the 15th century, it seems, English speakers stopped pronouncing some sounds within consonant clusters, making the language easier to articulate. Examples include the “d” in “handsome” and “handkerchief,” the “p” in “consumption” and “raspberry,” and the “t” in “chestnut” and “often.”

With the rise of public education and people’s awareness of spelling in the 19th century, according to the dictionary, sounds that had become silent were sometimes restored. This is what happened with the “t” in “often.”

You might be interested in knowing that “often” was originally just “oft,” and “oft” was commonly used as a prefix in word combinations that are archaic and unrecognizable today.

Even a word like “oftentimes,” which appears in modern dictionaries, seems dated and has musty, quaint overtones. It’s also a term that drives people crazy because of its apparent redundancy. But in fact, the words “oftentime,” “oftentimes,” and “oftime” date back to the early 1400s, and “ofttimes” was first recorded in the 1300s, so they have a venerable history.

[Note: This post was updated on May 25, 2018.]

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English English language Spelling Usage

Resume, resumé, or résumé?

[An updated and expanded post on this subject appeared on Jan. 14, 2015.]

Q: Is the noun “résumé” (someone’s list of accomplishments) so ingrained in English that the accent marks are no longer needed? The only reason I can see for keeping them is so that the noun won’t be mistaken for the verb “resume” (meaning to begin again after an interruption).

A: The document that boasts of one’s accomplishments may be spelled in English either with or without accent marks, depending on which style manual or dictionary is the guide. But the most common spellings seem to use at least one accent. (In French, the word is spelled with acute accents over both e’s.)

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) lists the spellings in this order: “résumé” or “resume,” also “resumé.” (The wording indicates that the first two are equal in popularity, and the third is somewhat less common.)

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) lists the same spellings, but in reverse order: “resumé” or “resume” or “résumé.” (The wording indicates that the three are equally popular.)

The New York Times stylebook recommends using both accents. So take your pick! (Or opt for “curriculum vitae.”)

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Is pronunciation your forte?

Q: How is the word “forte” pronounced in this sentence: “Pronunciation is not my forte”? I usually hear people say “FOR-tay,” as in the Italian word for loud. Shouldn’t it be “fort,” as in the French word for strength? Has FOR-tay become acceptable through wide usage?

A: You’re right about the noun “forte,” meaning a strong point. It comes from French and by tradition should be pronounced like “Fort” Knox. The other pronunciation, FOR-tay, is a musical term, meaning loud, and comes from Italian. (In Italian it’s also an adjective meaning strong.)

Be that as it may, the two-syllable version is so entrenched, doubtless because of the Italian influence, that dictionaries now accept it. In fact, the Usage Panel of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) overwhelmingly prefers the FOR-tay pronunciation, though FORT is also standard English.

Be advised that some sticklers will turn up their noses when “forte” is pronounced with two syllables, but many more people will respond with a “Huh?” when it’s pronounced with one.

So which pronunciation should you pick? A usage note in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) offers this advice: “You can take your choice, knowing that someone somewhere will dislike whichever variant you choose.”

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Do we say “an herb” or “a herb”?

Q: Tarragon, dill, rosemary, and thyme are herbs. The “h” is silent in describing them generically. Ergo, does one say tarragon is an herb or tarragon is a herb? My Microsoft Office spell-checker is flagging the latter.

A: In the United States, the “h” in “herb” is silent. In Britain, it’s sounded. We say “an ’erb” while the British say “a herb.”

No matter which side of the Atlantic we hail from, we generally use the article “an” before a vowel sound (like a silent “h”) and “a” before a consonant sound (like a pronounced, or aspirated, “h”).

If you’re an American, give your spell-checker a pat on the back. If you’re a Brit, give it a good, swift kick. Spell-checkers can be useful (say, to point out typos or repeated words), but if you automatically make all the changes they suggest, your writing will be riddled with errors (often hilariously so).

PS: The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) has an interesting Usage Note on the “h” in “herb” and similar words that English has borrowed from French. Here it is, broken into paragraphs to make it more readable:

“The word herb, which can be pronounced with or without the (h), is one of a number of words borrowed into English from French. The ‘h’ sound had been lost in Latin and was not pronounced in French or the other Romance languages, which are descended from Latin, although it was retained in the spelling of some words.

“In both Old and Middle English, however, h was generally pronounced, as in the native English words happy and hot. Through the influence of spelling, then, the h came to be pronounced in most words borrowed from French, such as haste and hostel. In a few other words borrowed from French the h has remained silent, as in honor, honest, hour, and heir. And in another small group of French loan words, including herb, humble, human, and humor, the h may or may not be pronounced depending on the dialect of English.

“In British English, herb and its derivatives, such as herbaceous, herbal, herbicide, and herbivore, are pronounced with h. In American English, herb and herbal are more often pronounced without the h, while the opposite is true of herbaceous, herbicide, and herbivore, which are more often pronounced with the h.”

By the way, the “h”-less American pronunciation of “herb” is the original pronunciation of the word in Middle English, when it was usually spelled “erbe.” As the Oxford English Dictionary notes, “the h was mute until the 19th cent., and is still so treated by many.”

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