The oddest English spellings, part 20: The letter “y”
By Anatoly Liberman
I could have spent a hundred years bemoaning English spelling, but since no one is paying attention, this would have been a wasted life. Not every language can boast of useless letters; fortunately, English is one of them. However, it is in good company, especially if viewed from a historical perspective. Such was Russian, which once overflowed with redundant letters. To a small extent, such is Modern German with its ß (Swiss German does very well without it). In the Germanic and Romance languages, x, where it has not been abolished, is a needless luxury (sex would be as appealing in the form seks, and ax ~ axe would cut as nicely if it were spelled aks). Another luxury (luksury), or rather a great nuisance, is the letter y.
In old manuscripts, i occupied very little space (the dot did not help), and its smallness, inherited from the Greek iota, became proverbial. The English continuation of the word iota, via Latin, is jot, noun (not a jot), and possibly jot, verb (to jot something down means “to write something briefly”; compare jottings). When the personal pronoun (Old Engl. ic) lost its consonant and was reduced to a single vowel, it had two options: to attach itself to the adjoining word (I said and said I would then have become isaid and saidi respectively) or make itself more visible. Little words appended to the beginning of longer ones are called proclitics. Those glued to the end are known as enclitics. Medieval Frisian and Dutch are full of “clitical” forms (which makes texts in those languages sometimes hard to decipher), but English scribes chose another way: they capitalized the midget, and that is the reason for the modern spelling of I. Foreigners often wonder why the English aggrandized themselves by capitalizing the first person pronoun. The opposite is true. They were afraid of disappearing in texts and elevated the status of the letter of the alphabet, not of their personality.
For the same purposes of visibility, at the end of words scribes replaced i with y; hence any, busy, and their likes (in “pet forms,” y sometimes varies with ie: Johnny ~ Johnnie). Every new rule produces complications. Once you decide that y is a substitute for i in word final position, you have to learn how this position can be recognized. It looks like a trivial task, but appearances should not be trusted. Dry ends in y, which is fine (that is, we take the traditional spelling for granted). Nor do the comparative and the superlative drier, driest raise objections: the dangerous letter (i) is now in the middle. But we spell dryly with two y’s! To understand the rationale for this spelling, one has to distinguish inflectional suffixes (such as -er) from word-forming ones (such as -ly: dryly is a word different from dry, while drier is a form of dry). There is the noun dries “drought,” which coexists with its homophone drys “prohibitionists” or “dry places” (plurals). Drys looks unfamiliar and ugly, but it is correct. If someone decided to add the suffix -ism to bully, the result would be bullyism, not bulliism. Likewise, bullyrag is not bullirag. Dries “drought” is wrong.
A few words have y in the middle for all kinds of arcane reasons. Such are dye, rye, and lye. The Old English for rye was ryge (pronounced approximately rüye). Its spelling does not seem to have changed much since the days of King Alfred. Dye is a different case. In many languages, non-identical spellings are used to differentiate homophones in writing. In English, dye has the letter y to distinguish it from die. Seeing that dye and die can hardly be confused, this measure is a waste. But you never know. Perhaps the owner of some failing hair salon decides to ruin the reputation of the competitor and to this end disfigure the wall of the more successful establishment with the graffiti “Never say dye!” To this ruffian the redundant letter will come in handy. (No doubt, I was not the first to perpetrate this feeble pun. People devoid of the sense of humor always use the verb perpetrate in this context and call all puns feeble.) The same principle that explains the difference between die and dye has been used in flier ~ flyer. I discovered the existence of the program called frequent flyer (and I still remember when it started) from a flier distributed to the passengers. I assume that lye is spelled with a y to prevent its confusion with lie. If so, we witness another exercise in futility because lie (“tell falsehoods”) and lie (as opposed to sit and stand) are still spelled alike. Shakespeare puns, and puns very cleverly (that is, not feebly), on the two verbs in a bitter sonnet addressed to the Dark Lady.
Then there is goodbye, with its incongruous ye. And while I am dealing with by, I may mention that by- or byelaws have nothing to do with the preposition or adverb by (this is a well-known fact, but it may be new to someone). Bylaw, in one of its meanings, goes back to the concept of a local law (from the Old Scandinavian word for “place of residence”). It is the same by as in Crosby (cross + by), Whitby (“white settlement”), and so forth. Dickens chose to spell the name of his character Dombey, but it is still Dom-by. Even Frisbee traces to Frisby, originally “a Frisian town.”
Most learned words with y in the middle are of Greek origin. Regrettably, English has never shaken off its classical heritage in spelling. Cycle, cypress, cyst, dynasty, etymology, lyre, myopia, nymph, syllable, style, and many others — not necessarily bookish nouns, adjectives, and verbs — bear witness to this pedantry (a list of my-words is especially sizable: myth, mystery, etc.). There is still some controversy surrounding the coining of the name nylon, but in any case, the word is not Greek. Why do we spell distemper but dyslexia? An etymological reason for that exists: two prefixes are indeed involved here, but modern English-speakers hardly sense the difference between them. Dystopia is the opposite of utopia, and displace is the opposite of place. The necessity to learn the written image of every new word beginning with dis- in pronunciation will turn the sweetest individual into a disgruntled customer or cause dyspepsia. Are you sure it is disharmony but dysfunction? Look them up or search for them. However, the process of writing need not become a game of constant riddle solving. If I were king, with due apologies to the Wylds, Wyldes, Smyths and Smythes, I would abolish the letters x and y, except in their family names, and let lynx and Styx become homographs of links and sticks! Who will be stymied by my desire to make life easier? (Stymie is a late word of unknown origin.) My plan has little practical value, for the chance of my achieving the status of an absolute monarch, an enlightened despot, a benign (benevolent?) dictator, let alone king is remote. However, the die is not cast.
Those who enjoy reading dictionaries will discover gyves, lychgate, lykewake, wych-elm (along with wych-hazel), and many other nice-looking words. They will wonder why tryst, which is probably related to trust, is not trist. They will get entangled among tireless tyros (or tiros: a Latin word for “novice, recruit” of unknown origin: military slang, something like rookie?), British tyres, and American tires (from attire?). It remains to say that y is the first letter of numerous words, yes and (New) York among them. It allows dogs to yap and yuppies to flourish.
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 on the OUPblog each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of firstname.lastname@example.org; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”
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Image credit: Ouroboros by Lucas Jennis. An etching of a wyvern eating its own tail. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.