Last week for my inaugural column here at OUPblog I talked about how new words bubble up into the English lexicon and how Oxford lexicographers judge which ones deserve inclusion in new editions of our dictionaries. But we’re keeping tabs on many other more subtle aspects of our changing language beyond the flashy lexical newcomers. Take spelling errors, for instance. Dictionaries are, of course, expected to give the standard spellings of words and phrases, reflecting what is generally considered the most correct and acceptable in written English. But sometimes common misspellings tell us fascinating things about how writers navigate the tricky waters of English orthography. And sometimes once-nonstandard spellings become so widely accepted that they even (gasp) make it into the pages of the dictionary.
First, let’s put aside simple slips of the pen or keyboard, like spelling language as languag or lanfuage. What’s more interesting is when we can guess at a possible linguistic reason for why someone has deviated from the standard form of a word. Very often the patterns of other similar words interfere with how we write and speak. For instance, I’ve found myself spelling (and pronouncing) the word diminution, meaning ‘reduction in magnitude,’ as dimunition. I know very well that diminution is related to diminutive, but somehow that doesn’t keep me from occasionally switching the vowels around. Maybe my brain picks dimunition because of interference from words that share a family resemblance, like ammunition and munition, or even admonition and premonition. What similarly patterned words are going to help me with diminution? Well, there’s comminution, which means ‘pulverization into tiny particles,’ but that’s well outside my active vocabulary (and pulverization is much more fun to use, anyway).
Consider another more common case of vowel mixup. The word minuscule is etymologically related to minus, which ought to help with remembering the spelling. But pressure from the prefix mini- and words like miniature and minimum leads many people to spell the word as miniscule instead. This spelling has become so widespread, even in professional writing, that most current dictionaries list it as a variant. The New Oxford American Dictionary provides an entry for miniscule but calls it a “nonstandard spelling” and gives a usage note warning readers away from this “common error.”
Are we perhaps being too hard on miniscule? Lexicographers here at OUP can consult the Oxford English Corpus to see just how accepted this spelling has become. In our hardly minuscule collection of 21st-century written texts, the spelling miniscule actually outnumbers minuscule, by a ratio of about 55% to 45%. From the big all-encompassing Corpus we can extract smaller groups of texts, or subcorpora, to see exactly where the variant usage is coming from. Not surprisingly, the less standard spelling miniscule crops up more frequently in unedited writing. Focusing only on texts that we can identify as having been edited, the percentages are reversed, with 55% of writers preferring minuscule to 45% for miniscule. As for the unedited texts we’ve collected, there’s no contest: miniscule shows up a whopping 73% of the time.
If we’re finding a preference for miniscule over minuscule in nearly half of edited writing and nearly three-quarters of unedited writing, then it’s likely that we’ll need to reconsider the treatment of the miniscule variant in future editions of our dictionaries, in order to reflect its gradual acceptance across the range of English usage. This development is not new, by the way — according to the Oxford English Dictionary, miniscule has been appearing in published prose since the late 19th century, and gripes about the spelling have been aired in the popular press since at least the 1970s. Despite disapproving of miniscule, Garner’s Modern American Usage acknowledges its appearance in a variety of reputable publications, from major newspapers to Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (“Harry saw that the little square for June thirteenth seemed to have turned into a miniscule television screen”).
How you react to this sort of change in usage depends on your point of view. Linguistic purists would likely decry the popularization of a spelling variant like miniscule as just one more sign that English is on the slippery slope to oblivion. From another perspective, however, this is simply the way that language evolves. Personally, what I find most significant is that this orthographic change didn’t just come out of the blue. First, the usage of minuscule expanded from its original typographical sense referring to lower-case letters (as opposed to majuscule), eventually coming to refer to anything tiny or insignificant. That meant the miniscule spelling could be thought of as equally plausible, or even more plausible, because the ‘tiny, insignificant’ sense is a perfect match for the mini- prefix (even if the rest of the word, -scule, is not meaningful on its own).
Through associations with the whole class of mini-words, the miniscule spelling ends up making sense in a new way. And that’s the kind of semantic motivation we find again and again when words get reshaped in common usage. Next week I’ll take a look at how this same sort of motivation remakes idiomatic expressions once the original idioms start to fade away. A warning: it may offend the more straight-laced of our readers who expect English users to tow the line.
Ben Zimmer is an editor at Oxford University Press and a true word junkie. Once a week he surfaces from his dictionaries to write this column. Check out his “words of the week” on our main page (center column) or by clicking here.