There is no greater pleasure for a language historian than grading papers. Every year our colleges accept better and better students with ever loftier goals and higher aspirations (or so we are told). Only their ignorance remains unchanged. For years it has been cherished, cultivated, and praised as a product of a free-soaring, independent spirit, and by the age of eighteen an acorn finally develops into an ineradicable oak. The entire history of the English language, with its chaos and naiveté, shows through an average undergraduate’s style, grammar, and spelling. This is the man at whom they laughed at. The woman whom they thought was dead suddenly appeared again. The boy laid for some time and then recovered consciousness. (The first sentence would be perfectly acceptable in Old Norse, the second, in different forms, turns up regularly in the reports of the Associated Press, and the third is by now Standard Midwestern English.) And of course, students write alot! If ahead, atop, and even ahold (a-hold) are right, what is wrong with alot? Let us call it an adverb and recognize an unusual type of derivation; this will make everybody happy.
Henry Bradley, the second editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, in discussing the interplay between spoken and written language (1913), composed the sentence: “Send these boots to the cobbler to be soled, and the others to the auctioneer to be sold.” He probably could not imagine that about a century later a junior taking the course “German Folklore” would characterize the folktale as the sole of the nation. “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?” I asked her in private. She was. (In our evaluation forms, one of the questions is whether the instructor showed enough respect for the students. I shudder at the response I will get. It is not her grievance but the possibility of an undo process that can undue me; the first spellings is authentic.)
The number of homonyms and homographs in English is overwhelming. In oral communication, homonyms seldom cause misunderstanding, for the context takes care of ambiguities, though in the same paper Bradley quoted an enthusiastic statement of a certain orator: “Oxford is a whole, and what a whole it is!” The audience burst out laughing. But English spelling is a nuisance. When we see a sentence beginning with I read…, we have to look at what follows, to find out how to pronounce read (the present or the past?). Years of practice dull our sensitivities, and we no longer notice the horrors of pairs like mean—meant. Vowels were shortened before two consonants in Middle English, but modern spelling often remains traditional; hence meant (with ea before nt) and the past tense of read (the form once ended in -dde). Students know nothing about Middle English and reason that if lead, the name of the metal, is pronounced led, the past tense of the verb lead should also be spelled lead. Here they are mistaken. By way of consolation, no one seems to be in trouble with bread and bred.
After the appearance of Part 4 of “The Oddest English Spellings,” in which I mentioned, among other things, the place name Rotherhithe allegedly pronounced redrif, I received a letter from Mr. Gavin Wraith, who cited several other equally amusing and unpredictable pronunciations. Belvoir, he pointed out, is indistinguishable from beaver. Daniel Jones’s pronouncing dictionary says that Belvoir castle is indeed “Beaver” castle, whereas, when Belvoir is part of street names, belvwar is correct. Live and learn. “The last syllable of Pidding Hoe, near us,” Mr. Wraith says, is homonymous with who, and Bowness, on Windermere, is bonus: “…only strangers put any stress on the second syllable.” Strangers are always in trouble. Those who did not have the good luck to be born in Oregon often stress the third or the first syllable of Willamette and are reproved gently: “Willamette, dam’ it.” “As for Cirencester, I guess you know that one,” the letter continues. Indeed, I do: I learned the correct pronunciation of that name together with Leicester. But I decided to look it up again and discovered that the most common pronunciation heard in the town is sirensester, that members of county families generally (that is, not always!) pronounce sisiter, and that even an older pronunciation siziter may still be heard in the country round. O, the rapture of being privy to the secret that Beauchamp is pronounced beach ‘em and that only “people unfamiliar with the place” presume that Beaminster is Bee-minster, while it really is bemister!
Many place names developed according to the same rules that affected the pronunciation of other nouns (long vowels were shortened before long consonants and consonant clusters; in groups of three consonants one was lost, and so forth), but they were more vulnerable to the wear and tear obvious in other long words, because they turned up especially often in speech and because “locals,” when they heard the names, knew what was meant and did not expect clear enunciation. Therefore, so-called allegro forms prevailed. But there might be other reasons. Although the two examples that follow are well-known, their history may bear repetition. It is not quite clear why key is pronounced kee rather that kay. However, at the moment, it is only the existence of Mr. John Key or Kaye (1510-572) that interests us. He Latinized his plain English name (which probably means “skewed” or “left-handed”) as Caius. Yet Caius in Caius College, Cambridge, is still pronounced Keys, that is, Keez. “Only people unfamiliar with the place” think of Caius Julius Caesar when they deal with that college. The same unenlightened individuals are unaware of the pronunciation of Magdalene in Magdalene College (Oxford and Cambridge). The name Magdalene was borrowed from Old French in the form Maudelaine. In the pictorial representations of St. Magdalene, she is invariably shown weeping. This is how the adverb maudlin (from Maudelaine) in the phrase maudlin drunk arose, apparently, with reference to maudlin tears (the earliest recorded meaning of maudlin is “drunk”). Later the word came to be used as an adjective with the sense “lachrymose, lackadaisical, tearfully sentimental.” The restored Latin spelling had no effect on the pronunciation, and in the names of the college at both Oxford and Cambridge, Magdalene sounds as maudlin, much to the amusement of neophytes. It may be the right place to mention the fact that the word Magdalen (sic) “reformed prostitute,” pronounced without any tricks, also exists.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them. 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.”