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By Anatoly Liberman

First I would like to respond to the comments on my discussion of spelling reform. I was aware of the continuing efforts by some groups to simplify English spelling, but I think their chances of success are slim, because there is no public awareness of the damage done by our erratic spelling system. We need respelling bins, similar to the now ubiquitous recycling bins. Thousands of hours are wasted at school on teaching useless rules. The only protest on the part of the victims is passive: despite all attempts to teach people to spell, the “populace” remains illiterate, and now the spellchecker has partly solved the problem. The remark that the possibilities of the spellchecker are limited is, of course, correct: affect and effect, lead and led, along with other “confusables,” are in its memory, but it does not know when to use which (a notice in the coop store near my house warns: “The planet’s weather effects your food”; the warning makes sense even with this spelling). Nor can it eliminate typos like card instead of cared or tow instead of two. Yet it corrects many embarrassing mistakes, including embarrassing, regularly spelled with one r. (“No bare asses, please,” said a young instructor with a crude sense of humor to his group and was rewarded with a grievance for sexual harrassment, as the statement indicated. Serves him right: do not create a hostile environment in the classroom.) The correspondent who, in his remark, sings praises to the spellchecker has every right to do so, for, it is indeed one of the greatest inventions of the 20th century, along with spray-and-wash, cold cereal (serial?), and dental floss.

The doubts about the impossibility of strictly phonetic spelling have little to do with the reform. Today no one would try to substitute phonetic transcription for traditional spelling. If any version of the reform were accepted, it would have to use and slightly modify the existing system rather than revolutionizing it. Some absurdities can be eliminated without irritating even the staunchest supporters of the status quo. For example, ph and x are obviously redundant: telefone and aks (the latter for ax ~ axe) are perfectly understandable. We spell even phony (a late word of obscure origin), phit (sound-imitative), and phut “failure” (slang, from Hindi) with ph! Isn’t it the peak (pinnacle, acme) of phony-ism? The digraph ea is also useless in all words in which it occurs. I believe no modern English dialect distinguishes between feet and feat in pronunciation, and the spelling head versus red makes no sense even from the historical point of view, for in Old English both words had the same long diphthong. The doubling of letters in word final position is hardly ever needed (perhaps only for differentiating in and inn). Likewise, no one will miss initial k– and g– in knock and gnaw. All these things have been said hundreds of times. The only more or less valid argument against spelling reform is that familiar words will begin to look odd. Yet spelling reforms have been carried out in several countries without dire consequences. How many of us read 19th-, let alone 18th-century classics in contemporary editions? Following the irresistible gut feeling, even decently educated people spell it’s for its. Who, except some language historians, remembers that this was the accepted spelling in the 18th century? Not only Germans capitalize nouns. The same rule existed in English and Danish. About a hundred and fifty years ago, Germans abolished capitalization and then, unfortunately, returned to the old system. The English (thank heavens) stayed with small letters. Otherwise, we would have had Ph.D.’s in capitalization in our departments of linguistics. Whenever a novelty is introduced, some tradition is disrupted, in order to become part of a new tradition. Since the days of Shakespeare many words have drastically changed their visual image. It is only the blind resistance to change that turned English spelling into a trap for both native speakers and foreigners, but, as I said in my post, the chances for improvement are, to my mind, vanishingly small.

One of our correspondents wonders whether she can find old dictionaries online, so as to follow the change of meaning. The question was asked in connection with the verb trudge. Some such dictionaries are available. But for observing semantic shifts it is more profitable to use the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which traces the history of words from their appearance in books, written and printed, to the modern period. In some cases, the time span is more than a thousand years. By contrast, the earliest edition of Webster’s dictionary goes back to 1828. From the historical perspective, it appeared almost yesterday. Those that were published before Webster antedate it by two centuries at most. Trudge was first recorded toward the middle of the 16th century with two meanings “walk off, depart” and “walk heavily, laboriously, wearily.” Its origin is unknown, except that it had the variants tridge and tredge. Despite some difficulties with my hypothesis, I think that tredge is an expressive variant of tread, whereas tridge and trudge are variants of tredge. Perhaps trudge was coined to mean “depart awkwardly, make off in a clumsy way” and later broadened its meaning to “walk heavily” (budge, nudge, fudge, dredge, and other verbs ending in -dge are usually expressive), but this is guesswork. In any case, if the change from “depart” to “plod” really occurred, it would be hard to follow by comparing dictionaries, though we do have a few published in the 17th century, whereas the OED presents the entire picture in one succinct entry.

Separate words. The legitimacy of alright. This spelling has been with us since the end of the 19th century and will probably stay. Alright has joined words like already, altogether, always, also, and others, spelled with one l (to confuse people who try to send letters to the Almighty in English). The line between a word and a compound is often blurred. Consider formations like notwithstanding (not withstanding, and still earlier not with standing, where with meant “against”), nevertheless (compare the less, the better), forever, anymore (spelled separately in British English), database, indeed, at-a-boy, oftentimes, and so forth. In pronunciation, alright does not differ from all right. I agree with the verdict of our most authoritative dictionaries that alright looks informal and that in dignified writing all right should be preferred. The status of orc as a fantastic animal. As far as I can judge, the orc is not among the endangered species. The word was borrowed from Latin and turned up in Old English with the meaning “monster; demon.” It was later applied to the grampus and vaguely to various kinds of sea monsters. If proboscis is the elephant’s trunk, what is boscis? In similar fashion, one can ask what is bate and nounce in probate and pronounce. In English, boscis means nothing, but in Classical Greek, the ultimate source of the English noun, boskein “cause to feed” existed (hence proboscis “a means of providing food”). Can anything be done to stop the use of the word supposably??  Alas, no.  It has been around for more than a century.  If probable and probably are allowed, who can prevent people from saying supposable (not the most beautiful but a legitimate word)) and supposably?  Language develops and leaves us behind. Studying language change is a delight; watching it is usually an abomination. The word kitten-caboodle does not exist: kit and caboodle is the phrase our correspondent had in mind. Ca– is a not uncommon reinforcing prefix (most likely, from Dutch; it seems to have been confused with its synonym ker-). The source of boodle (“the whole of one’s possessions”) is undoubtedly Dutch, and kit is “kit,” though it started out with the meaning “tankard.” Whipper-snapper. In the 16th century snipper-snapper and whipster existed. Whipper-snapper appears to be a fusion of the two, with a slight alteration of whipster to provide rhyme. The origin of the idiom in the loop. The meaning of in the loop and out of the loop (“among the insiders, in the in circle” versus “those excluded from it”) is self-explanatory. The occurrence of in the loop in printed texts does not antedate the early seventies. Out of the loop turned up later. The idiom seems to have originated among the people connected with science and technology and computer scientists. I was unable to find any exact references.

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. Scott de B.

    English spelling may be difficult, but there is evidence that the inclusion of superfluous letters makes words more distinctive and thus easier to read. Distinguishing feet and feat is but one example. Since a word is written only once but potentially read thousands of times, it makes sense to cater to readers rather than writers. And one cannot ascribe literacy problems to our spelling system; Japanese orthography is infinitely more complicated, yet they have one of the highest literacy rates in the world.

  2. I rather like the old rules of spelling. It is like the concept of precedence in law. Go with what has been proved to be useful over time. Introducing lots of new rules without a solid historical foundation is a mistake. The seeming extra bits in spelling give a certain charm to our language and make it more eccentric and thus more interesting.

  3. Allan

    Yes, spelling should cater for reeders, but also for riters. If riters find riting difficult, they wil tend to avoid it. And reeders wil then miss out.

    Throwing in extra letters just so reeders can distinguish, say, ‘rein’ from ‘reign’, seems odd when we dont toss in enny extra sound when saying the words. We no them from context. Just as we do with homografs, such as, ‘sound’, ‘bar’.

    I would hate to be a Japanese having to memorize their orthografy. The ame of an alfabet is to make reesoning and logic the tools to help us reed, rather than us having to memorize most of the dictionary.

    [In this note, i hav made homografs where most reeders did not expect them: ‘no’ for ‘know’, ‘reed’ for ‘read’. Not being used to them, u probbably found them a little disruptiv, but did u misinterpret them?]

  4. Laura J.

    The native Japanese phonetic script is actually the very paragon of easy learnability; it’s only their insistence on keeping Chinese mixed in with it that makes it difficult to read on an adult level.

  5. Paul Peterson

    Do away with traditional English spellings and life will become a lot more difficult for students of historical (Germanic) linguistics. Fie! On a side note, I have found myself substituting ‘any longer’ for ‘anymore’ as a rule (despite the fact that the ‘anymore’ appears in my mind every time as the first option). I’ve been in the dark as to whether a correct spelling exists since I began writing, and have noticed that in most of the literature I have read it is ‘any more.’

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