Categories
Etymology Pronunciation Usage

Why is it “moral,” not “morale,” support?

Q: I’m puzzled by the phrase “moral support.” Why do we use the word “moral” here when “morale” is being supported? Was it once “morale support”?

A: No, it’s been “moral support” ever since the expression first showed up in English in the mid-19th century.

This may be because there was a brief period during the 19th century when the adjective “moral” could refer to morale.

The Oxford English Dictionary says that sense of “moral” is now obsolete or rare, though it wasn’t in 1852, the date of the OED’s first citation for “moral support.”

The dictionary’s entry for “moral support” doesn’t specifically mention morale boosting, however. It defines the phrase as simply “support or help which is psychological rather than physical.”

Now for a brief history of these upstanding words. Both have their roots in Old French and ultimately in the Latin moralis (having to do with morals, manners, or customs).

The word “moral,” which is accented on the first syllable, came into English in the 1300s. It’s both an adjective and a noun. 

As an adjective, it generally means something like “ethical” (as in “He is studying moral philosophy”).

As a noun it means a lesson or a maxim (as in “Does this book have a moral?”). The plural “morals” means ethics or principles (“Sharks have no morals”).

“Morale,” which is accented on the second syllable, is exclusively a noun and came into English much later, in the 1700s.

As the OED explains, it first meant moral principles or practice, but it acquired its modern sense in the early 1800s.

As used today, the OED says, “morale” means “the mental or emotional state (with regard to confidence, hope, enthusiasm, etc.) of a person or group engaged in some activity; degree of contentment with one’s lot or situation.”

This is an example: “When a team loses a game, its morale suffers.”

Now here’s a sentence using both words: “The moral of the story is that living a moral life can bolster one’s morale.”

It’s been said, according to the OED, the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, and other sources, that the Roman orator Cicero coined moralis as the Latin counterpart of the Greek ethikos (“ethical”).

Cicero, by the way, was a champion word-minter.

He’s credited with coining the Latin versions of many English words and phrases, including “alter ego,” “beatitude,” “evolution,” “favor,” “intelligence,” “irony,” “logic,” “magnum opus,” “non sequitur,” “notion,” “quality,” “religion,” and “republic.”

Inventions like those inspired the Italians to coin a word—one we borrowed—for a learned guide or mentor: “cicerone.”

Check out our books about the English language

Categories
Etymology Pronunciation Usage

A controversial pronunciation?

Q: Do we (that is, we Americans, who should be the authorities on proper English) prefer con-truh-VUR-shul or con-truh-VUR-see-yul?

A: We won’t get into the issue of American versus British English here.

We’ve discussed this in several posts on the blog, including one in 2008 that was prompted by a reader who thought US English had gone astray.

We’ve also written extensively about US and UK English in the first chapter of our book about language myths, Origins of the Specious.

As for the adjective “controversial,” you can’t go wrong here. It has two pronunciations in American English.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) list both the four-syllable pronunciation ending in shul as well as the five-syllable one ending in see-yul.

Interestingly, the Oxford English Dictionary’s entry for the word lists only one pronunciation:  con-truh-VUR-shul.

However, the OED says it’s an adaptation of the Latin controversialis (a word with all the vowels pronounced).

This suggests to us that “controversial” may have had the longer pronunciation when it entered English in the 16th century.

And in case you’re interested, the OED’s entry for “controversy” also has only one pronunciation, CON-truh-vur-see (not the pompous kun-TRUV-ur-see).

Check out our books about the English language

Categories
Etymology Pronunciation

Bean counting

Q: For years, I’ve wondered about the origin of the American pronunciation of “been” as BIN.  Do you have any historical information on this unique pronunciation of the word that British speakers pronounce as BEAN?

A: Most Americans pronounce “been” as BIN or BEN. Most speakers of British English now say BEAN, but this was not always the case.

In the past, “been” was pronounced as BIN (and probably BEN) in Britain too.

We checked an old edition of John Walker’s A Critical Pronouncing Dictionary and Expositor of the English Language, published in London in 1791, and found that the usual British pronunciation of “been” at that time was BIN.

In his entry for “been,” Walker writes: “It is scarcely ever heard otherwise than as the noun bin, a repository for corn or wine.”

In English Spelling and Spelling Reform (1909), Thomas R. Lounsbury, a professor of English at Yale, writes that British speakers in the 19th century began pronouncing “been” as BEAN primarily because of the word’s spelling.

“There is little question—there is, indeed, no question—that at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and even much later, the digraph ee in this word had in cultivated speech the sound of short i,” Lounsbury says. (The term “digraph” refers to two successive letters with a single sound.)

He adds that  the pronunciation of “been” to rhyme with “seen” was sometimes heard, but “it was then so limited in use that orthoepists hardly thought it worth while to recognize its existence.” (Orthoepy is the study of pronunciation.)

Lounsbury goes on to say that the 18th century’s two leading authorities on orthoepy, John Walker and Thomas Sheridan, “admitted no pronunciation of been save that which made it ryme with sin.”

“Yet,” Lounsbury writes, “with no support from the most prominent lexical authorities, the pronunciation of been to ryme with seen instead of sin, steadily gained ground in England during the last [the 19th] century. There it seems to have become finally the prevalent one.”

The past participle “been” has been spelled many ways over the years, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, including beon, ben, beyn, buen, bene, byn, been, and bin.

Historically, the spellings of English words often reflect the pronunciations of the day. From the various spellings of “been” in the OED, it appears that the pronunciations have fluctuated over the centuries, with long e sounds and short i or e sounds often trading places.

The BEN pronunciation apparently first showed up in the 1300s, while BEAN and BIN appeared in the 1500s. However, BIN seems to have been the dominant pronunciation from the 1500s well into the 1800s.

In the case of “been,” Americans preserved two old British pronunciations that were in popular use before the Revolution.

Something similar happened with another word, “creek.”

John S. Kenyon, in his book American Pronunciation (10th ed., 1966), says “creek” has historically had multiple pronunciations in British English, with the ee pronounced as either a long e or a short i.

The British have retained only the long-e version, KREEK, while Americans have preserved both KREEK and KRIK.

Although many Americans frown on KRIK, US dictionaries list the two pronunciations as standard.

As Kenyon says, the prejudice against KRIK “is due to ignorance of actual historical usage and to reverence for the spelling.” 

Check out our books about the English language

Categories
Etymology Pronunciation

Franglais speaking

Q: I am a physician who frequently attends professional meetings where the first syllable of “centimeter” is often pronounced SAWN as opposed to SEN. The former strikes me as the old syndrome of Frenchifying a word that’s English despite its Gallic origin. Am I correct?

A: Yes, you’re correct.

The word “centimeter” entered English two hundred years ago as a borrowing from the French centimètre. It means one-hundredth of a meter, and the roots of the French word are centi (a prefix for “hundred”) and mètre (“meter”).

However, “centimeter” is now an English word. There’s no reason to pronounce it as if it were foreign. We don’t pronounce “toilet” as twa-LAY.

Besides, the words “cent” and “meter” entered English many centuries before “centimeter” was adopted from French in 1801, so they were already long familiar to English speakers.

The word “cent,” ultimately from the Latin centum, was used in English to mean “hundred” before the year 1400, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. And the derivative “percent” entered the language in the 1500s.

“Meter” has been an English word since at least as far back as the ninth century, according to the OED.

It comes partly from the Latin metrum (meaning poetic meter or an object used for measuring), and partly from the Greek metron (poetic meter, measure, rule, length, size).

Obviously, there was never any reason for “centimeter” to retain a French pronunciation. 

We’ve written before about the tendency of some English speakers to impose French (and even faux-French) pronunciations on what are now firmly established English words.

Take “niche,” for instance. We wrote a blog item last year about the relatively recent appearance of the Frenchified NEESH pronunciation in English.

Our book Origins of the Specious has a whole chapter on fractured French, with many examples of the peculiar lexical relations between English and French.

Check out our books about the English language

Categories
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.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation And check out our books about the English language.

Categories
English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Language Linguistics Phrase origin Pronunciation Slang Usage Word origin

In search of the wild kudo

[NOTE: This post was updated on Aug. 25, 2020.]

Q: What is the source of the word “kudos”? Is there such a thing as a “kudo” in the wild?

A: The word “kudo” arose as a mistake, and the majority opinion is that it’s still a mistake.

The correct word, “kudos,” is a singular noun and takes a singular verb, say most usage guides, including the new fourth edition of Pat’s book Woe Is I. “Show me one kudo and I’ll eat it,” she says.

That’s the short answer, the one to follow when your English should be at its best. But English is a living language, and the singular “kudo” and the plural “kudos” are out there kicking up their heels, never mind the word mavens.

Where did “kudo” come from? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it’s a back formation resulting from the erroneous belief that “kudos” is plural. (A back formation is a word formed by dropping a real or imagined part from another word.)

Pronunciation may have played a part here. Originally “kudos”—like its singular Greek cousins “chaos,” “pathos,” and “bathos”—was pronounced as if the second syllable were “-oss” (rhymes with “loss”). A later pronunciation, “-oze” (rhymes with “doze”), probably influenced the perception that the word was a plural.

Now for some etymology. “Kudos” comes from the ancient Greek word κῦδος (kydos), a singular noun meaning praise or renown. And it was a relative latecomer to English.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says the Greek term “was dragged into English as British university slang in the 19th century.” The first published reference for “kudos” in the OED dates from 1831, when it meant glory or fame.

Although “kudos” was officially singular, it was often used in a general way without a direct or indirect article, which may have blurred its sense of singularity.

In a typical early citation in the OED, for instance, Charles Darwin writes in an 1859 letter that the geologist Charles Lyell read about half the manuscript of On the Origin of Species “and gives me very great kudos.”

In its earliest uses, according to Merriam-Webster’s, “kudos” referred to the prestige or glory of having done something noteworthy. But by the 1920s, it had developed a second sense, praise for an accomplishment.

And it was during the ’20s, the usage guide says, that “the ‘praise’ sense of kudos came to be understood as a plural count noun, much like awards or honors. Time magazine, according to M-W, may have helped popularize the usage.

Here’s a 1927 example from Time that suggests plurality: “They were the recipients of honorary degrees—kudos conferred because of their wealth, position, or service to humanity.”

And the usage guide also cites a 1941 citation from the magazine that’s clearly plural: “There is no other weekly newspaper which in one short year has achieved so many kudos.”

Once “kudos” was seen in Time and other publications as a plural, M-W’s usage guide says, “it was inevitable that somebody would prune the s from the end and create a singular.”

The OED’s earliest sighting of “kudo” shorn of its “s” dates from a book of slang: “Kudo, good standing with the management” (Jack Smiley’s Hash House Lingo, 1941).

Oxford also cites a 1950 letter from Fred Allen to Groucho Marx, in which Allen hyperbolically describes approval for a TV show expressed by customers at the Stage Delicatessen in New York: “A man sitting on a toilet bowl swung open the men’s room door and added his kudo to the acclaim.”

Merriam-Webster’s includes quite a few examples of the singular “kudo” and the plural use of “kudos.” Here are a couple from mainstream publications:

Saturday Review (1971): “All these kudos spread around the country.”

Women’s Wear Daily (1978): “She added a kudo for HUD’s Patricia Harris.”

OK, the singular “kudo” and the plural use of “kudos” are the result of mistakes. But a lot of legitimate words began life in error. Are “kudo” and “kudos” becoming legit as they spread like kudzu?

Merriam-Webster’s thinks so—sort of. The usage guides says the two usages “are by now well established,” though “they have not yet penetrated the highest range of scholarly writing or literature.”

Other usage commentators aren’t so open minded. In its entry for “kudos,” Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.) says that “in standard usage it has no plural nor is it used with the indefinite article a.”

Jeremy Butterfield, editor of Fowler’s, says “the final -s is sometimes misinterpreted as marking a plural.” But “kudo as a singular,” he writes, is not “desirable or elegant.”

“No other word of Greek origin,” Butterfield adds, “has suffered such an undignified fate.”

Lexicographers are also skeptical for the most part. Of the ten standard dictionaries we usually consul, only three (two of them published by the same company) accept the singular “kudo.”

Reflecting the majority opinion is Lexico (the former Oxford Dictionaries online), which says this in its entry for “kudos”:

“Despite appearances, it is not a plural form. This means that there is no singular form kudo and that the use of kudos as a plural … is incorrect.” Lexico provides an incorrect example (“he received many kudos”) and a corrected one (“he received much kudos”).

The three that accept the singular word “kudo” and the plural use of “kudos” are Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster Unabrided, and Dictionary.com (which is based on the former Random House Unabridged).

Dictionary.com, for instance, accepts word in two senses: (1) meaning “honor; glory; acclaim,” as in “No greater kudo could have been bestowed”; and (2) meaning “a statement of praise or approval; accolade; compliment,” as in “one kudo after another.”

For now, we still don’t recommend the usage.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Categories
English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Phrase origin Pronunciation Usage Word origin

Vice isn’t nice!

Q: At my place of employment, management has circulated a memo requiring employees to use the word “vice” instead of “versus.” So a company document might read: “Consider performing maintenance vice replacing the faulty part.” I would appreciate any insight you can provide.

A: Your bosses are recommending a term that’s not common, except perhaps in the military. This is the use of the preposition “vice,” a Latin borrowing, to mean “instead of” or “in place of.” 

(Think of the related term “vice versa,” which is also from Latin and means “conversely,” or “in reversed order.”)

This “vice” can be pronounced as one syllable (rhyming with “nice”) or as two (VYE-see), according to standard dictionaries.

A Google search finds that your bosses aren’t alone in using “vice” instead of “versus,” though this is certainly not common in ordinary English. These days, the “instead of” sense of the word is more common in prefixes and adjectival nouns in titles.

For example, we use it (pronounced as a single syllable) in terms like “vice president” and “vice consul,” where it means someone who represents or serves in place of a superior. A  “viceroy,” to use another example, rules a province or country as the representative of his sovereign.

The preposition “vice” as used by your bosses first showed up in written English in a military usage in the 18th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Here’s the OED citation: “6th reg. of foot: Capt. Mathew Derenzy to be Major, vice John Forrest; by purchase.” (From a 1770 issue of the Scots Magazine.)

[Note: The military use is still alive. Two readers of the blog report that “vice” is used for “in place of” in armed-forces documents.]

Later OED citations include uses in sports, diplomacy, and music. Here’s one from a book Pat is currently reading:

“He was gardener and out-door man, vice Upton, resigned.” (From William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel Pendennis, 1849.) 

As a noun, of course, “vice” can mean a lot of nasty things: depravity, corruption, evil, and so on. The OED says the noun, first recorded in English in 1297, is from a different Latin source: vitium (“fault, defect, failing, etc.”).  

But getting back to your company’s memo, we see nothing wrong with “versus,” a preposition meaning “against” that’s been in steady since the 15th century. Like the prepositional “vice” and its derivatives, “versus” is from Latin, in which it means “against.”

As you’re probably aware, “versus” may have inspired a popular colloquial usage: the word “verse” as a verb meaning to compete against. We recently wrote on the blog about  this use of “verse.”

[Note: This post was updated on Oct. 13, 2016.]

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation
And check out our books about the English language.

Categories
English English language Etymology Pronunciation Usage Word origin

Herbal remedies

Q: I can’t help responding to your blog posting regarding “a herb” vs. “an herb.” Any word that starts with a vowel has “an” in front of it. “Herb” does not start with a vowel, no matter how the word is pronounced. No other words with silent letters get singled out with such nonsense. A vowel is a vowel and that’s that. A herb is a herb too! Thanks much for listening (I hope!).

A: Sorry to disappoint you. When using an indefinite article (that is, “a” or “an”) before a word, the determinant is the SOUND the word begins with, not the letter of the alphabet.

Check any reference source you want and you’ll learn this. The word’s spelling is irrelevant.

If the word begins with a vowel SOUND, the article is “an” (as in “an apple,” “an hour,” “an honor,” “an herb,” “an umbrella”).

If the word begins with a consonant SOUND, the article is “a” (as in “a hotel,” “a house,” “a utopia,” “a unit,” “a university,” “a use,” “a European,” “a one-time offer,” “a once-over”).

In American English, the “h” in “herb” is not sounded; it is silent, so it’s preceded by “an.” In British English, the “h” in “herb” is sounded, so it’s preceded by “a.”

You say, “No other words with silent letters get singled out with such nonsense.” Of course they do! All words beginning with a silent “h” are preceded by “an.” Are you telling me you actually say “a honorary degree from an university”?

What I’m telling you is common knowledge. Check any dictionary or usage guide.

I’ll quote The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.): “The form a is used before a word beginning with a consonant sound, regardless of its spelling (a frog, a university). The form an is used before a word beginning with a vowel sound (an orange, an hour).”

And this is from The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, edited by Robert H. Burchfield (who uses “AmE” for American English, “BrE” for British English): “AmE herb, being pronounced with silent h, is always preceded by an, but the same word in BrE, being pronounced with an aspirated h, by a.”

I can cite many, many more authorities if you’re still unconvinced.

American Heritage has an interesting Usage Note on the “h” in “herb” and similar words that English has borrowed from French. I quoted it in that earlier post, but it bears repeating:

“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.”

In case you’re wondering, the “h”-less American “herb” is the original pronunciation in Middle English, when the word 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.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.

Categories
English English language Pronunciation Usage

Spice craft

Q: BAY-zul or BAZZ-ul? KYOO-min or KUM-in? The first pronunciation in each pair is the one I hear most often today; the second is the pronunciation I grew up with. I’m wondering if cooking shows are responsible for this. Julia Child most certainly pronounced them the way I was taught. This will not change the world or stop global warming. It’s just something I want to get off my chest.

A: The pronunciation of herbs (and the word “herb” itself!) comes up a lot in my email. Many herbs have several acceptable pronunciations, as you’ll find when you look them up.

But even dictionaries can change their stripes. “Cumin” is an interesting example.

My 1956 Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language (2d ed.) says “KUM-in” is the only correct pronunciation. But things appear to have changed in contemporary usage.

Both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) list three pronunciations without comment (meaning all are acceptable): KUM-in; KOO-min; KYOO-min.

As for “basil, American Heritage and Merriam-Webster’s list two acceptable pronunciations: BAZZ-ul (with a short “a” like the one in “jazz”) and BAY-zul (with a long “a” like the one in “bay”).

If you’re curious about “herb,” I’ve written a blog entry on why Britons pronounce the “h” and Americans don’t. The short answer is that the “h” in “herb” wasn’t pronounced on either side of the Atlantic when the Colonies were being settled.

You wondered about cooking shows. I suspect that TV chefs have little influence on how we pronounce herbs – and perhaps less on how we use them!

Buy our books at a local store, Amazon.com, or Barnes&Noble.com.

Categories
English English language Etymology Pronunciation Usage Word origin

Herbal treatment

Q: I’m a South African and I wonder why Americans pronounce “herb” as ERB. Isn’t this a French affectation?

A: Americans pronounce “herb” as ERB because that’s the way the word was spoken when the Colonists left England in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Britons began pronouncing the “h” in “herb” in the early 19th century. Before then, both Brits and Americans pronounced it ERB.

In fact, the word was usually spelled “erbe” for the first few hundred years after it was borrowed from the Old French erbe in the 1200s.

The “h” was added to the spelling later as a nod to the Latin original (herba, or grass), but the letter was silent in English.

Today, Americans pronounce “herb” the way Shakespeare did, with a silent “h,” while the Bard wouldn’t recognize the word in the mouths of the English.

If you’d like to read more about British-vs.-American English, check out my latest book, Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language, written with my husband, Stewart Kellerman.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.

Categories
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.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation And check out our books about the English language.

Categories
English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Language Linguistics Phrase origin Pronunciation Spelling Uncategorized Usage Word origin Writing

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.]

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

 

Categories
English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Linguistics

Stormy weather

[An updated and expanded post about “nor’easter” appeared on the blog on March 2, 2015.]

Q: Where does the word “nor’easter” come from? Is it short for “northeastern”? I live in Brooklyn and we recently experienced a nor’easter.

A: The word “nor’easter” is a contraction of “northeaster,” which is a noun meaning a strong northeast wind or a storm with heavy winds from the northeast.

The prevailing opinion among American broadcast and print journalists, who choose the contraction “nor’easter” by a wide margin over the longer version (just check Google), seems to be that “nor’easter” represents a regional New England pronunciation. This seems to be a myth, however. Many linguists and a great many coastal New Englanders insist that no such pronunciation existed in the region, and that locals have always pronounced the word without dropping the “th.”

According to the University of Pennsylvania linguist Mark Liberman, “nor’easter” is a “literary affectation.”

The earliest published reference to “nor’easter” in the Oxford English Dictionary comes from an 1837 translation of an Aristophanes comedy, The Knights: “Slack your sheet! A strong nor’-easter’s groaning.” The English poet Alfred Austin (he was poet laureate from 1892 to 1913) used both “nor’-easters” and “sou’-westers” in his writing, according to the OED.

Buy Pat’s books at a local store or Amazon.com.

Categories
English English language Etymology Pronunciation Spelling Usage Word origin

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.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.