Why Skate but Scathe?
Or, The Oddest English Spellings. Part 14
By Anatoly Liberman
Ever since I wrote a post on skeptic and ascetic, I have been meaning to return to the sc ~ sk oddity, especially in connection with the prospects of Spelling Reform. In my previous discussion of the reform (a measure that I support wholeheartedly), I highlighted my disagreements with most of its advocates. Those who recognize the absurdity of the present system usually try to save the English spelling world (there must be such a community matching the English speaking world) overnight. They offer numerous reasonable changes, spell giv and hav (= give and have), and so on, whereas my idea is that the reformers should move at a snail’s pace, nibbling rather than hammering away at one inconspicuous rule after another, ignoring the most frequent words (which means that have, give, and their ilk will preserve their useless final e), and choosing their targets after considering the impact of their actions on those who have mastered the horrors of English spelling and cling to this useless treasure. Expunge some double letters, replace ph with f, abolish the dependent ~ dependant contrast, and so on.
Native speakers/spellers of the Romance languages do very well without the letter k, whereas in English we have cat alongside its offspring kitten. It would be ideal to go in the opposite direction, that, is to get rid of c and spell sensus (= census) like senses and kat (= cat) like kitten. After all, we extend equal rights to Kate and Cathy, to say nothing of Rebecca ~ Becca and Becky. But such a change would be too revolutionary. Who will agree to pet a kat? (Though I’ve seen kat food in ads, and, apparently, “kats” don’t mind the product.) By contrast, changing sc to sk in all words, except for proper and place names, would be relatively painless. An etymological dictionary informs us that scrimmage ~ scrummage is an alteration of skirmish. Skirmish and scrimmage were first recorded in the 14th and the 15th century respectively. Skirmish is a word of Romance origin and could be expected to begin with sc. Modern speakers do not know the origin of this word and will be content to spell both skirmish and scrimmage with sk. Likewise, scrimp and skimp would survive if spelled similarly (with sk-). Our present day norm is heir to a welter of partly arbitrary scribal variants pulling in different directions.
Opponents of the reform profess devotion to the past and say that spelling should be a mirror of language history. God forbid! Why voluntarily return to the Middle Ages? It is rewarding to be immersed, not to live in them. Archaists should note how many words are spelled in violation of history. Skirmish, as pointed out, is a borrowing from Old French and has sk, while screed continues Old Engl. screade and rightfully begins with sc, as it did in days of yore. (More examples to follow.) According to The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, the origin of skimp and scrimp is unknown; other dictionaries are less pessimistic on that score. Be that as it may, there is no justification for spelling them with different initial groups.
Old English had many words beginning with sc. Later, sc- turned into sh-, as in ship, sheep, and shear (Old Engl. scip, scep, sceran). The Scandinavian invasion of medieval England, a major consequence of the Viking raids, resulted in the emergence of thousands of Old Danish words in Middle English (especially in its northern dialects). Old Danish had initial sk, and today, when we encounter an English word beginning with a group pronounced as sk (regardless of the spelling), we may suggest that we are dealing with a borrowing from Old Norse, even though the key name Scandinavia has been Latinized (in the Scandinavian languages it is, naturally, spelled with sk). And indeed, scathe (to return to the title of this essay) entered English in the 13th century in the form skathi and superseded the native form sceatha “malefactor; injury.” (I have partly modernized the spelling.) Since scathe has a Norse etymon, it should be spelled with sk, but it is not.
Two English nouns are spelled skate. The fish name is a loan from Old Norse, but the device for skating came to English from Dutch. Those who have read Silver Skates won’t be surprised. The name of our great etymologist Walter W. Skeat may be mentioned here. In looking for its origin, one should ignore the most obvious look-alikes. A sceat was an early Old English coin, and scat (from Scandinavian) is “tax; tribute; specifically, a land tax paid in the Shetland Islands.” German Schatz “treasure” is related, and so is possibly Russian skot “cattle” (compare Latin pecunia “cattle” and “money”). However, specialists in the origin of names derive Skeat from the Old Norse adjective skjótr “quick, fleet,” so that the spelling sk is justified.
Wherever one turns, one discovers that sc versus sk is not a safe guide for an amateur etymologist. Contrary to expectation, scare is from Old Norse, and skiff is from Old French. Ski, skill, skin, and sky are loanwords from Old Norse (there is some justice in the world after all), skim is from Old French, while the origin of skillet is debatable. Scaffold is a Romance word, and skald “an old Scandinavian poet” is often spelled scald in British English (under the influence of scald “burn”?). So here is my proposal: do away with sc, spell scatter and scab with sk, and stop tormenting children with the forms each of which has to be learned on an individual basis. Do I think that anyone will heed my advice? You never know.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”