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In Jeopardy, Or, The Oddest English Spellings
(Part 6)

By Anatoly Liberman

As though it is not enough that English vowels change all the time but are represented in spelling in the most archaic way imaginable, the language is swamped with French nouns, adjectives, and verbs, taken over in the Middle Ages and later. In the new country, they have always felt perfectly comfortable (at home) and proved their patriotism by allowing their original vowels to merge with the indigenous crowd and shift when “the natives” did (and they shifted incessantly). But the educated class wanted the rest of the world to remember that it knew French and therefore retained the visual image of the borrowed words as it had been in the lending language. A passionate love of freedom went hand in hand with a voluntary subjugation not even to a message of a foreign culture (this would have been easy to understand), but to the envelope in which that message arrived. Although we speak English (to the extent that we do), we spell in French half of the time. In the past, Norwegians spoke Norwegian (which is not surprising, for what else should they have spoken?) but were made to spell their language according to the Danish norm. Those who read old books may have seen a strange line on the title page: “Translated from Dano-Norwegian” (such are, for instance, some editions of Ibsen in English). Norwegian spelling was reformed long ago, but English guards its traditions with the perseverance worthy of a better cause.

The digraph (a group of two letters) eo appears in the verb feoff (pronounced fef) “put in possession of a fief” (that is, “enfeoff”), jeopardy, leopard, and people. (I may have missed some.) Old French fieuffer ~ fieffer was spelled feoffer in Anglo-French, and the English word is still spelled as it was in post-Conquest England. By contrast, fief reached English from the continent only in the 17th century and looks like its Modern French etymon (source). Predictably, it rhymes with thief (Germanic) and brief (French). Fee originally meant “estate in land on FEUDAL tenure” (Old French feu, fiu, and fieu; Anglo-French fee). Its vowel changed as did the vowel of the native verb see, for example, and we have no trouble with its spelling. Finally, there are feud and feudal, both of Romance descent, though their ultimate origin may be Germanic. They would have looked less outlandish if they were spelled with -ew-, like pewter (also from French!) and Newton (from English: Newton means “new town” –a typical case of a family name going back to a place name). Thus, feoff, fief, fee, and feud, four related words, only one of which (fee) is spelled according to expectation. (By the way, if you are a fan of English spelling, note four, sour, and dour: the latter rhymes with sure, moor, and paramour in British English and Scots.)

Old French pople resembles its etymon, Latin populus. In Anglo-French, the open and long first vowel of pople changed its realization, and scribes were not certain how to represent it; hence the spellings poeple and people (at that time, pople seems already to have been pronounced more or less like Modern French peuple). When, in Middle English, the root vowel became indistinguishable from that of Engl. see (compare what has been said about fee), it changed accordingly, and the variant peple turned up. We can only regret that common sense did not prevail and that of the competing variants peple and people the second, rather than the first, won over. I’ll add for the benefit of those who like nursery rhymes that in the modern language, people rhymes only with steeple (English and related to steep)

Jeopardy has a more adventurous history. It was first attested in the 14th century and meant “chess problem.” Its etymon is Old French iu (ieu, giu) parti “divided play,” that is, “even game,” from which we arrive at “uncertainty” and “risk of injury or death.” The digraph eo in it no longer surprises us, but we wonder why, given this spelling, the first syllable does not have the vowel of people. The explanation is trivial and therefore uninspiring. In certain positions, English vowels, which may be short or long, are, for that reason, sometimes lengthened or shortened. For instance, in Latin populus, the first vowel was short but later became long, which accounts for the modern pronunciation of people. In jeopardy, the root vowel was always short and has remained such. Since long and short vowels were often spelled alike in Old French and Middle English, a foreigner looking today at people and jeopardy cannot decide how to pronounce them, but native speakers know the answer. The same holds for leopard. However, the etymon of feoff had two variants, and Modern English word goes back to the one with a short vowel. (Shortenings and lengthenings work havoc with our inconsistent spelling, as everybody knows who tried to persuade students not to spell the past of the verb lead as they spell the name of the metal lead.)

We notice that jeopardy, which is traceable to giu parti, has d, not t in the last syllable. It is to be expected that a word with such a meaning will put a language historian at risk at every step. Jeopardy is a dangerous game. In the 15th century, the consonants p, t, and k were voiced in certain positions, that is, became b, d, and g. Such a process, even if unpredictable, will seem natural to the American speakers of English who pronounce d (a so-called flap) between vowels in place of historical t and do not distinguish between deep-seated and deep-seeded (and constantly misspell the first of those words), futile and feudal, Plato and play dough, tutor and Tudor, and so forth (the anthologized examples are writer/ rider, latter/ladder, and ssweetish/ Swedish). Americans brought their pronunciation of t as d to the New World. Pottage is now remembered only thanks to the Biblical phrase to sell one’s birthright for a mess of pottage. In some dialects, pottage was pronounced podditch, and d in it became r (the change of any consonant–though usually of z–to r, is known as rhotacism, from the name of the Greek letter rho). The result was porridge, originally “soup,” like pottage. This type of rhotacism, common in some areas of Great Britain, has not made its way into Standard English (porridge may be the only example), but the intermediate stage is represented by American English, with its writer/rider, and British rural speech. In similar fashion, p underwent voicing in some words. One of them is jeopardy (amusingly, recorded as jobardy). It is less clear whether card and diamond belong here; in any case, their etymons end in -t, as in French carte and diamant. The relation of mound to mount is also obscure. The best-known cases of k becoming g are flagon and sugar (French flacon and sucre). Inquisitive readers may ask why sounds change and hinder communication, rather than staying put. They will be told that a general rule the cause in unknown. The title of this essay has been chosen with a purpose.

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 protected]; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

Recent Comments

  1. Conrad H. Roth

    “dour: the latter rhymes with sure, moor, and paramour in British English and Scots.)”

    Once, perhaps. Every Englishman I know rhymes it with sour.

  2. neil

    ‘Jeopardy’/’giu parti’ – many thanks, I was wondering where that came from. That’s why I found your blog, which I rather like.

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