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The oddest English spellings, part 18: Why sure and sugar?

By Anatoly Liberman


The spelling of those two words does not bother us only because both are so common and learned early in life.  Yet why not shure and shugar?  There is a parallel case, and it too leaves us indifferent, though for a different reason.  Consider su in pressure, measure, pleasure, leisure, and the like.  We do not question the occurrence of su in the middle of a Romance word, with its phonetic value of sh (as in cushion) or ge (as in genre and rouge) and pay no attention to azure, in which the same sound is designated by a more natural group zu.  The French origin of pressure, azure, measure, and their ilk, let alone genre and rouge, is so obvious that perhaps even those who have never studied French are dimly aware of it.  By contrast, sure and sugar are fully domesticated (only etymologists know all the details of their descent), and, even more important, su in them occurs word initially.  It is their position at the beginning rather than in the middle of the word that causes surprise.  However, both sure and sugar also came to English from French and in this respect have common cause with pressure and measure.

From a historical point of view, the story is simple.  Consider the names of the letters U and Q, that is (in phonetic terms), yu and kyu.  Before y, t becomes ch, s turns into sh, and z yields the voiced partner of sh.  Listen to how you say what you…; it is probably indistinguishable from watch you.  Many (most?) people pronounce unless you as unlesh you, and I have seldom heard anyone pronounce the title of Shakespeare’s play As You Like It with z before you: it is usually the same sound as in Measure for Measure.  In the middle of the word, rather than at word boundaries, an analogous assimilation happened several centuries ago, and that is why nature and vision sound as though they were spelled nachure and vizion.  This brings us to sugar and sure.

The vowel occurring in French sure was alien to most Middle English dialects, including the dialect of London, and, as the name of the modern English letter U shows, yu replaced French u in borrowed words.  We can observe this substitution even in such a recent loanword as menu (and compare nubile and other nu- words).  Once sure appeared in English, it turned into syure, and a similar change happened in sugar (syugar).  Later, syu– developed into sh– (compare bless you, session, and Asia, regardless of whether you have a voiced or a voiceless middle in the last of them, for the voicing is secondary).  As noted above, sure and sugar are such conspicuous monsters because word initially su– designates sh only in those two words.  (Actually, the plant name sumach also has a variant with shu-, but it is known too little.  Sumach makes a good riddle: “There are three English words in which initial su- has the value of shu-.  The first two are sure and sugar.  What is the third?”  This is a much better riddle than the famous teaser: “Three common English words end in -ry.  The first two are angry and hungry.  What is the third?”  Answer: “Such a common word does not exist.”)

Although the picture has now been clarified, it is curious to observe the twists in the history of sounds.  Today no one (except perhaps in some dialects), I believe, pronounces sh- in sue and suit.  Most probably, both succumbed to the tyranny of their written images and retained s-.  American English has taken a radical step and eliminated y in sue and suit altogether: they became soo and soot respectively, but, naturally, with a long vowel.  Therefore, Americans travel with “sootcases” and wear “soots.”  In British English such variants also existed and were criticized in the 1826 book Vulgarities of Speech Corrected.  On the other hand, some people whose pretentiousness made them finickin (finicky, if you prefer) in all matters, including their speech, enunciated every sound with excessive care and pronounced siu instead of syu.  The same book called such variants “pedantic vulgar-genteel” and recommended a pronunciation “with an easy flow, and not with a stiff and formal mouthing of a letter.”

Nowadays, censure and pressure have sh in the middle, rather than its voiced partner occurring in measure, pleasure, and usual.  Yet assume seems to be assyume everywhere.  (Compare presume with a voiced consonant!)  Ensure and insure do not differ from sure in this respect: not unexpectedly, with sure as their root, they followed suit (as it were).  But in the 18th century, suit, as well as assume, consume, pursue, ensue, and even supreme and superb, were often pronounced with shoo-.  The spelling scheurley “surely” turned up as early as 1538, and at the end of the 16th century we find sheute “suit” and shewtar “suitor.”  It is customary to think of language history as a straight line: allegedly, some features disappear, while others take over.  Facts are at variance with such a simplistic model.  Dialects have always fought one another for ascendancy, “educators” and vulgar-genteel pedants have always tried to impose conservative variants (and occasionally succeed in their endeavors), popular authors breed imitators, and book printing resulted in the development of what we now call Standard English (the same is, of course, true of other languages).  As a result, we witness many seemingly established later forms ousted (beaten back) the more conservative ones, even when other new, “vulgar” forms break through and find acceptance by the cultured class.

The history of sugar, which can be traced in some detail thanks to the recommendations of old grammarians, is a case in point.  A teacher who was active in 1676 warned his pupils against the pronunciation shoogar.  Another author called sh in sure and sugar barbarous (1685).  In 1695, the pronunciation with initial sh– was castigated as being “after the West-country-Dialect.”  In court records, the personal name Suger occurred alongside Shuger.  What was vulgar, barbarous, or ludicrously local in the days of Daniel Defoe and even Henry Fielding is the only acceptable pronunciation to us.  It is hard to believe that as late as 1791 the elegant, perhaps even the received, pronunciation of suicide was shuicide.  As always, puns tell their own story.  In Shakespeare’s days, suitor and shooter were, or at least could be, homophones.  “There was a Lady in Spaine, who after the decease of hir [her] Father hadde three sutors, and yet neer [never] a good archer.”  A sizable part of Act IV, Scene 1 of Loves’s Labour’s Lost turns around the suitor/shooter pun.  (“Who is the suitor, who is the suitor?”… “Well then, I am the shooter,” etc.)  A colleague of mine once quipped that a person who has read the works of the great Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure would never be so sure of anything.  Sorry for highlighting the relevant elements.  Some people despise puns, don’t hear or laugh at them.  They call every pun feeble and punning the lowest form of wit.  Rest assured: they act out of envy.

From shoo to shoe

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 him care of [email protected]; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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Recent Comments

  1. John Cowan

    A few minor points:

    Many Americans, including me, say /wʌt/ for what rather than the expected /wɑt/ that corresponds to RP /wɒt/ (except in Eastern New England where there is no father-bother merger). For these speakers what you does not sound like watch you. In addition, where the /t/ is articulated as a glottal stop, there is of course no assimilation.

    In American English, a coronal followed by /ju/ in a stressed syllable loses the /j/, which is why menu is /ˈmɛnju/ but nubile is /ˈnubaɪl/. You note a particular case of this in sue, suit to which I will add Zeus /zus/; the loss of /j/ in stressed /sj/, /zj/ is present in modern RP as well.

    Sumac rather than sumach is the usual American spelling: the OED lists sumach as primary, but m-w.com and NID3 list it as secondary, and AHD4 and RHD2 not at all. In any case, the pronunciation ends with /k/.

    Assume is definitely not /əˈsjum/ everywhere; indeed, I have never heard this pronunciation used by North Americans, and all four American dictionaries mentioned above give only /əˈsum/, as predicted by the rule given above.

  2. Masha Bell

    The variable pronunciations of 69 English graphemes ( detailed at http://englishspellingproblems.blogspot.com/2009/12/reading-problems.html) now offer etymologists great scope for research. Bud sadly, they also make learning to read English much harder and slower than in other languages with alphabetic writing systems.

    This has come about mainly because Anglophones no longer see orthographies as man-made devices for encoding speech sounds and which are open to modification when they no longer do so efficiently – when they have become too far removed from the alphabetic principle of representing speech sounds in a regular manner. The simple fact that English is now written with 205 graphemes for its 44 sounds, while others have around 50 or fewer for their 40 or so sounds, shows how much more unalphabetic English spelling has become.

    When the spellings of words imported into English from other languages used to be modified to comply with English spelling patterns, once they had become part of everyday English vocabulary and their pronunciation had settled (e.g. battle, beef, pork from bataille, boeuf, porc), they caused no reading or writing difficulties. ‘Sure’ and ‘sugar’ need special attention in literacy teaching only because they escaped such orthographic adaptations.

    One result of the failure to improve the consistency of English spelling for over 300 years has been the high percentage of Anglophones who cannot spell, and also relatively many who cannot even read. I wonder if this has resulted in Anglophone countries having far more professional etymologists too, along with the much greater number of dyslexia specialists?

  3. […] an ally in the losing battle for reformed spelling.  Her remarks can be found at the end of the previous post (it was about su- in sure and sugar), and here I’ll comment briefly only on her questions.  Is […]

  4. Vedic Science Maths

    Origin of the word Sugar,
    Actual word Sugar is not in English, To name the Sugar one must have the object of SUGAR. 4 centuries ago westerners have no idea of India or America. And never seen grown the sugar cane nor made the Sugar. So how this Name “Sugar” word can exist in English dictionary at that time?
    But it did exist in story of KAMDEVA – bow made of sugar cane.
    Actual root word is in Sanskrit गर and when it used as a verb means to swallow, easily swallow-able, sweet. A prefix सु as an adverb,
    सु su
    Adverb, excellent, easily , beautifully, nicely, greatly etc

    Gives the Word सु + गर = सुगर, which is derived in English as an easily swallow-able , sweet substance , synonyms is sharkara शार्कर, शर्कर (f- शर्करा)but has different source of origin and actual meaning of origin of word.
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    Sanskrit word Transliteration Grammar English word Edit (Login)

    गर gara
    adj. swallowing

    गर gara
    f. kind of millet plant [ Andropogon serratus – Bot. ]

    गर gara
    m. factitious poison

    गर gara
    m. fluid

    गर gara
    m. any drink

    गर gara
    m. kind of disease

    गर gara
    m. beverage

    गर gara
    m. noxious or poisonous beverage

    गर gara
    n. wetting

    गर gara
    n. poisonous beverage

    गर gara
    n. fifth of the eleven karaNas

    गर gara
    n. sprinkling

    सु su
    adverb excellent

    सु su
    adverb quickly

    सु su
    adverb well

    सु su
    adverb good

    सु su
    adverb right

    सु su
    adverb beautiful

    सु su
    adverb rightly

    सु su
    adverb easily

    सु su
    adverb willingly

    सु su
    adverb greatly

  5. […] there an h in “sure”?) (this is how my mind works) (a link to the origins of sure and sugar: https://blog.oup.com/2011/11/sugar/) (this qualifies as a legitimate tangent) (…also noticed that, in modern media, parenthesis […]

  6. Ed Bailen

    This is a much better riddle than the famous teaser: “Three common English words end in -ry. The first two are angry and hungry. What is the third?” Answer: “Such a common word does not exist.”) What about “wry” , “dry”, and “dowry”?

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