By Anatoly Liberman
Last year I devoted several posts to the absurdity of English spelling and put my best foot forward in defending the idea of Spelling Reform. Despite my efforts and the efforts of my allies on both sides of the Atlantic, nothing has changed so far (strange!), so that I will go on with the series.
Two and shoe rhyme. Why then are they spelled so differently? Those who ask such questions believe that rhyme and reason go together. Unfortunately, they are mistaken. (An aside. Rhyme and reason have been variously contrasted from time immemorial. The earliest recorded example goes back to 1303, which means that the facetious juxtaposition had existed in the 13th century, if not in the days of William the Conqueror: after all, in English both words are of French origin. Perhaps without rhyme or reason ~ neither rhyme nor reason have become proverbial because the phrase occurs in Shakespeare. The following exchange takes place in As You Like It, III/2, between Rosalind and Orlando: “But are you so much in love as your rhymes speak?” “Neither rhyme nor reason can express how much.”) In principle, all the oddities and inconsistencies of English spelling go back to the fact that we still spell as we did hundreds of years ago. I have once dealt with the letter o in dove, move, rove, bosom, one, done, and the like. Now the turn has come round for some words with the vowel that is “normally” designated by oo. Even here normalcy is incomplete, for hood/good do not rhyme with brood/food, and the moment we begin to look for the less obvious rhyme, we see would beckoning from a nearby wood (wood).
Two retains its Middle English shape. In Old English, this numeral had different forms for the masculine, feminine, and neuter. (This Common Germanic rule for one to four has been preserved in Modern Icelandic, and this is why foreigners who dare speak the language of the natives, when in Iceland, prefer to buy five of everything: beginning with fimm, numerals have the same form for all genders.) From the Old English masculine we have twain. Two continues the feminine, though the same form was occasionally used for the neuter. It sounded twa, with the vowel, as in Modern Engl. father. In early Middle English, this so-called long a changed to long open o (approximately as in Modern Engl. awe as in Standard British English, but with the mouth open not so wide); hence the spelling two. Still later long closed o acquired a more narrow pronunciation and became long u, which is the sound we now hear in two. Spelling took no notice of the last change, and two did not become twoo. W was sometimes lost before u (whether long or short). Woo and swoon (both recorded in Old English and both declared to be of unknown origin) have retained their w, but sword (from swurd) has lost it, and so has two; compare also the cognates dwell and dull. Despite my ardent desire to make English spelling more rational, I think that some etymological ties, to the extent that they need no proof to modern speakers, need not be severed. Two is so obviously akin to twice, twain, twin, and twenty (twist and twelve also belong here, but it takes an effort to notice their affinity with two) that the presence of w in it has some justification. Who developed like two: its Old English form was hwa, with “long a.” The same series of changes, as above, transformed hwa into hoo (spelled so as late as the 15th century). Many people still pronounce hw- in what, which, and so forth, but, of course, not in who. However, the letter w was restored in this pronoun for the sake of “pattern congruity.” An extra letter adds dignity to a short word.
We can now turn our attention to shoe. In Old English (sco ~ scoh) it had “long o,” the sound that appeared in two and who after their long a began to shift, so that its modern pronunciation causes no surprise. Final -e was thrown in for good measure. It seems that the spelling sho may have been misunderstood for a homonym of show, and this is why sho ~ shoo (both spellings have, naturally, been recorded) changed to shoe. But logic is not a strong point of English spelling. Doe, hoe, roe, sloe, toe, and woe do have oe at the end and rhyme with show rather than shoe. All of them, except hoe, have existed in the language since the Old English period, and the question arises why they have not developed into doo, roo, sloo, and too. Although the answer is known (more properly, those words have been categorized in such a way that the answer looks as though it were known), details of historical phonetics concern us here only in so far as they shed light on etymology and spelling and not for their own sake. If my topic were the minutiae of sound change, I would gladly discuss the intricacies of the Great Vowel Shift and hold forth on the fate of the vowels that stayed behind, but limited by my themes, I won’t do it here. (Let me again remind our readers that the rhetorical figure I so much enjoy using is called preterition, as in: “If I were as mean as my opponent, I would remind him that his mother sold not only homemade cakes to her male customers, but, being a gentleman, I will pass over that fact.”) Anyway, toe and shoe are spelled alike; the same holds for show and how, which don’t rhyme either.
Alongside shoe, we find aloe (from Greek via Latin, influenced by its Old French cognate) and Chloe. Aloe rhymes with hallow/fallow/sallow/shallow/tallow, so that its -e is mute, whereas Chloe has a bookish pronunciation: Chlo-e. It is fair to say that English words with final oe pronounced as in shoe turn up rarely. Canoe and hoopoe come to mind at once. The Spanish borrowed canoe from Arawak (ultimately, from Carib; in older books the lending language was called Haytian, Haitian, Hispaniola, or St. Domingo), and from Spanish it spread elsewhere. The once current idea that traced canoe to a misreading of Latin scapha “boat” might add ammunition to the etymology of syllabus (words coined by mistake; see the previous post), but it has no foundation. In English, the word was first spelled as in Spanish, that is, canoa. Later canoo and canow turned up, and finally, canoe appeared, in imitation of French. As though to mock the English, Modern French has turned canoe into canot. Strangely, words for small vessels often contain the sound complex kn: such are, for example, German Kahn, Old Norse kani, and Old Norse knorr. As for hoopoe, I will quote The Century Dictionary, definition and all, with its abbreviations expanded: “The form hoopoe was doubtless originally pronounced like hoopoo, which, with hoophoop, first appears about 1667-78; an imitative variant or clipped reduplication of the earlier hoop, apparently after Latin upaupa…. ‘A tenuirostral non-passerine bird of the family Upupidae’.” This is preceded by a detailed and most informative entry on the obsolete bird name hoop ~ whoop ~ hoope (the same as hoopoe), from French huppe (from Latin, from Greek), and their possible folk etymological ties with the verb hop. The end. (The shoe has been buckled).
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to email@example.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”