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Monthly gleanings for December 2014, Part 2

Murray’s centennial

Although I am still in 2014, as the title of this post indicates, in the early January one succumbs to the desire to say something memorable that will set the tone to the rest of the year. So I would like to remind everybody that in 1915 James Murray, the first and greatest editor of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) or New English Dictionary (NED), died. Here is the conclusion of an obituary published in The Nation (vol. 101, p. 134):

“He was an organizer of scholarship, calling for recruits, as Sir Walter Raleigh called for them in the days of his dreams of a flourishing Virginia, and leading them into half-explored or virgin territory, there to spy out the land as a preliminary to setting down what they found, with such accuracy and fulness [sic] that no one else should need to go over the ground again, except to supply a detail here and there or to cross an occasional t or dot an occasional i.”

To avoid sounding too solemn, I’ll quote another passage, also from The Nation, this time printed in 1933. Naturally, I am responsible for neither the anonymous author’s statistics nor his attitude toward men, stockings, and the secret dealings inside the OED:

“When the dictionary was completed in 1928, the compilers were appalled to discover that while they had been at work, one new word had broken into the language for every ten old ones. So they set about a supplement, which doubtless will be followed by a supplement to the supplement, and so on. The supplement-makers were asked to include forty-three new words to describe various shades of women’s stockings. They were conservative gentlemen who in the days when they were most concerned with women’s stockings were able to discern only two colors, white and black, and they refused to introduce a new category.”

The allure of the digraf ph. (Phishing. Image by  kleuske. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.)
The allure of the digraf ph. (Phishing. Image by kleuske. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.)


Valerie Yule suggested that we cut surplus letters, except for 38 very common irregular words. According to her plan, we will end up with qickly, reserch, sho, lernd, pepl, gide, for quickly, research, show, learned, people, guide, and so on. I am ready to support any version of the reform that has a chance of being accepted. For qickly I would prefer kwikli, but the time for arguing about details will come when we have the public on our side. Many researchers (reserchers) have offered lists of words that can or should be respelled (consult Masha Bell’s website, among others). My greatest fear is that the Society for Simplified Spelling will keep producing excellent ideas instead of calling the wide world to arms.

Emily F. Grazier wrote that, although she understands my aversion to the digraph ph, she wonders “what will happen to etymology… if such reforms are applied”; she is worried about “the potential historical loss.” This fear is familiar. It may sound like a poor joke, but, being a professional etymologist, I don’t want modern spelling to become an etymological old curiosity shop. Here are the main points.

  1. In dealing with etymology, one never knows where to stop. The British spelling of honour, colour, etc. shows its loyalty to French, but all such words are ultimately from Latin, and there the ending was –or, not –our.
  2. What looks like etymology is often a trace of Middle English pronunciation. Take wright in playwright. Initial w has been silent for centuries, and knowing that the letter w once designated a real sound does not tell modern speakers too much about the word’s origin, for no one without special training will guess that wright is allied to work. The digraph –gh– stood for the consonant of the type we hear in Scots loch. This is another piece of information I would not call too valuable.
  3. However conservative spelling may be, it is never conservative enough to substitute for a course in historical linguistics. Think of the origin and development of enough, with its e- going back to a lost prefix, gh (as in wright!) that here became f, and the vowel whose origin one will never guess without looking it up in a book on the history of English.
  4. In many cases, archaic spelling is the result of false etymologizing or analogy. For instance, whore, unlike whose, never had w-.
  5. Finally, even in Italian the digraph ph has been abolished, and Italian is, arguably, closer to Latin than Middle English. See more on ph in my post “The Oddest English Spellings: Part 21” (September 21, 2012).


Should ration rhyme with passion or with nation? Our correspondent David Markle looked up this word in various dictionaries and traced its history in detail. There is nothing for me to add. But he also mentioned privacy and several other words with the letter i. It is no wonder that differences in their pronunciation exist. As a general rule, a word consisting of three syllables should have a short vowel in the first one (holiday versus holy and the like). But the influence of private pulled the word in the opposite direction.

When in the Appalachians, do as the Appalachians do. (The Blue Ridge Parkway. North Carolina. Photo by Brian Stansberry. CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)
When in the Appalachians, do as the Appalachians do. (The Blue Ridge Parkway. North Carolina. Photo by Brian Stansberry. CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Another factor is spelling pronunciation. It has given us often pronounced as of-ten and forehead pronounced as fore-head. Hardly anyone around me rhymes often with soften and forehead with horrid. My variants (offen and forrid) sound as wrong or deliberately snobbish (naturally, I can’t say elitist: there cannot be a worse sin). On the other hand, to my ear mythology, when pronounced by a British professor as my-thology, is a bad joke, though I have resigned myself to the fact that in England they value privvacy and know in which di-rection to go. But the pronunciation divissive for divisive was new to me. The influence of division or of missive, submissive, dismissive, permissive? To be on the safe side, I turned to the Internet and looked up words rhyming with missive (I also consulted three rhyming dictionaries) and, to my consternation, found derisive. It matters little who produced the list on the Internet, for it shows that the pronunciations divissive and derissive are more frequent than most of us think. As regards Appalachian, with the syllable in bold pronounced as latch, there is no problem: it is a universally recognized variant used by the locals.

A few etymologies

Several questions about word origins require more space than is left for today’s post. I will answer them on the last Wednesday of January. Today only the easiest ones will be taken care of.

Kw- ~ tw (tv-)

To David Campbell who wrote: “The article on Qualm/Tvalm [not too long ago, there was a post on qualm] made me think of a similar example: quer and tver, as in German Querflöte ‘transverse flute’ and Swedish tverflöjt.” Yes, indeed, this is a similar case. The old word had thw-, as in Engl. thwart, from Scandinavian. Its Old High German cognate was dwerch or twerch. The phonetic change, which originated in some dialects, changed tw to zw. Hence German Zwerg versus Engl. dwarf and German Quark, a delicious thing; the word goes back to the Slavic form that begins with tv-. In Swedish, thw– became tv.

Lefties are the best lovers

To Keith Jacobs. He wrote: “We would like to understand the reason gauche means ‘awkward’. Is it pejorative against the left-handed or some other subtlety?” I saw the words used in the title of my response engraved on the cup a teenager gave her left-handed father. That admirable person was (and still is) a man of highly progressive views, an ideal husband, and a loving parent. But outside such special situations the left hand has traditionally been connected with awkwardness. Offenses are rarely subtle, so gauche has the connotations our correspondent suspects.

Recent Comments

  1. John Cowan

    What is more, humor first arrived direct from Latin, though later supplemented with French-derived senses. And as for harbor, it is a native word, and perhaps should be harber, but certainly not harbour, which is falsely learnèd.

  2. Masha Bell

    I agree that how to reform English spelling is far less of a problem than persuading people that it’s worth doing. For as long as most people remain ignorant of the many costs which the current system incurs (as detailed on my EnglishSpellingProblems blog), there is no chance of any kind of reform being implemented.

    My hope is that the rights of children will gradually be given more consideration. It was not so long ago that beating children and sending them down mines and up chimneys was regarded as acceptable, in the same way that putting 1 in 5 on the educational scrapheap continues to be.

    Once this is begun to be regarded as outrageous and there is proper research into why all English-speaking countries have this problem, the chances of reform will improve. It is quite insane to continue putting up with a spelling system that ensures that learning to read and write takes 10 times longer than with the more sensible orthographies of Finnish and Estonian and defeats one fifth of students altogether.

  3. EugeenLV

    I’m just curios what the etimology of this awkward English spelling could be. It is clear that this was done on purpose to make English look more sophisticated (to include all Norman, Greek and Latin heritage) but when, how and for what purpose? English phonetic alphabet btw roughly corresponds to phonemic Czech or Latvian alphabets.

  4. Abie

    While reading works by Erasmus Darwin (The Temple of Nature, Note XV: Analysis of articulate sounds), I recently came across a description of the imperfections of English spelling. Some are quite straight-forward, like:

    “SH is a simple sound, and wants a new character.
    TH is either sibilant as in thigh; or semivocal as in thee; both of
    which are simple sounds, and want two new characters.
    J French exists in our words confusion, and conclusion, judge,
    pigeon, and wants a character. ”

    But others struck me as odd, like his assimilation of ŋ to a “French n”:

    “NG in the words long and in king is a simple sound like the French n,
    and wants a new character.”

    And the last two are frankly surprising:

    “GL is dl, as Glove is pronounced by polite people dlove.
    CL is tl, as Cloe is pronounced by polite speakers Tloe.”

    Was it the standard educated pronunciation? If so, when did it stop being fashionable?

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