Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Etymology gleanings for February 2017


From time to time people share with me their versions of Spelling Reform. I rarely respond to such letters, because, unfortunately, I have little to say. The problem, as I see it, is not the ideal version of the reform but the reality of its implementation. The choir is happy, and we keep preaching to it. So here is my “take” on it, as business people say. For quite some time a congress devoted to Spelling Reform has been discussed. I have often expressed my opinion on its organization. Most probably, we need a group of people who can and are ready to do something. Those are ten or so active members of the Society (perhaps fewer: such as have studied the question in all of its ramifications, that is, “workers,” rather than figureheads invited for lending glamour to the gathering), along with representatives from four or five major newspapers and (most important) several officials (government, education) from the entire English-speaking world who will have the authority and power to implement the Reform. Twenty people may be enough. As usual, the larger the group, the less it will be able to achieve.

This is not my idea of the prospective spelling congress.
This is not my idea of the prospective spelling congress.

The funds to be raised should cover the travel expenses and accommodation for those who will attend the congress and whose home institutions won’t be able to pay for their participation. I cannot imagine that we are speaking about more than $25,000. A Skype meeting is of course an option, but, given the differences in the local time from Australia to New York and California, it may not be practicable. Anyway, even at our age of high-tech human beings do better work when they meet face to face and talk to one another during coffee breaks. At my estimation, the congress should take two full days.

I imagine that on the first day the following papers of various length may be read: “The Principles of Orthography,” “The Costs of Retaining the Existing Spelling for Native Speakers and Foreigners (Including Immigrants),” “The Objections to Spelling Reform in the Past and at the Age of the Spellchecker,” “The Cost of Implementing Spelling Reform,” “The History and Success of Spelling Reform Outside the English-Speaking World,” and “Attempts by Various Individuals to Introduce Their Systems and the Results of Such Attempts.” Each paper should, naturally, be followed by discussion. To prepare such papers is not easy, because we are talking about facts and figures rather than emotions. The second day should be devoted to the various (reasonable!) projects of reforming English spelling.

All the presentations should circulate among the members of the Society well ahead of time and, if possible, more widely, so that we should meet with an agenda and face journalists and various officials as a united front.  It is more important to reach an agreement than to fight for multiple pet projects. If it sounds like a program for a party congress, so be it. I can only repeat my favorite idea: the reform should not be too radical and not try to save the world at once. If it is necessary to improve English spelling gradually, it is better to do so than leave things the way they are. We have to win the support of our “electorate.” I for one don’t believe that today’s public will agree to spell giv, liv, hav, u (“you”), hisst (“hissed”), and muggd (mugged), but eliminating some double and redundant letters (especially in foreign words), changing unscathed to unskathed, and the like will probably meet with minimal resistance. If we make haste slowly, Achilles may overtake the tortoise.

I don’t expect a torrent of responses to this post. The world is not interested in our cause, and those who may benefit the most from the Reform have never heard of it, let alone of this blog, while the members of our small group have exchanged their opinions more than once. But nothing ventured, nothing gained, as they say in America, or nothing venture, nothing win, as people say elsewhere. I prefer the British version because venture and win almost alliterate, but I definitely (for some reason undergraduates where I live insist on spelling it definately) prefer American spelling (coloring book [no hyphen or –our-, and probably for this reason the object in question is an efficient source of emotional support], center [rather than centre], traveled [one l], and mold [no u before ld]). Incidentally, all those variants show that spelling can be reformed step by step and that it is possible, even if it is not an ideal option, to split the English-speaking world and have different spellings in different countries. To give one example: the Swiss speak and write German, but they eliminated the letter ß long ago (they replaced it with ss), and not long ago their spelling was partly adopted in Germany.

Bolder, boulder, and two l’s in English

I was very pleased to read the comments on the previous blog. For years I have used the same example that Rudy Troike recommends, and advised my students to listen to the first and the last sounds in the word little. I also use the British pronunciation of l in will you, where l is especially “light” or, to use the technical term, palatalized. Paul Nance’s reference to bowlder anticipated my prospective post on the horrors of the digraph ow in English words (“I was late for the concert, and, when I entered the hall, the musicians were already bowing”). What were they doing? English spelling is a can of worms, is it not?

Opening a can of worms

This is an image of English spelling. Succulent worms are good for catching ghoti and for very little else. (Look up ghoti on the Internet if you are not familiar with this word.)
This is an image of English spelling. Succulent worms are good for catching ghoti and for very little else. (Look up ghoti on the Internet if you are not familiar with this word.)

Gavin Wraith sent me a quotation from a book by Jack Vance. There the hero describes the Sahara cuisine. Among several other dainties, succulent helminths are mentioned. Mr. Wraith, who, according to his admission, reads this blog “assiduously” (for which I love him, for experience has taught me to love only those who love me, and I can no longer afford unrequited love), knows that helminth is Greek and means “worm.” His question was about the etymology of this word. The etymology is dubious.  The initial sound h in helminth goes back to the so-called digamma, that is, w. A more ancient form of this initial consonant was the labiovelar kw, often transcribed in textbooks and dictionaries as qu. It follows that the ancient root of the word was wel-, or kwel-. Perhaps helminth is related to one of the several Indo-European words for “worm,” though not to Engl. worm, whose Greek cognate is rhómos “woodworm”; however, the Slavic name of this creeping creature (Russian cherv’; ch goes back to k) looks like a cognate. The main problem is the suffix –minth (if it is a suffix), because it never appears in any other identifiable word. Several conjectures about the origin of –minth (or mith; n might have been a so-called infix) are not worth discussing here. I am not sure that Jack Vance should have used the Greek word in this context. As far as I can judge, in English the noun helminth means only “a parasitic intestinal worm.” It is certainly succulent, but tastes do differ.

Image credits: (1) “FBI Press Conference” by Jay Baker, CC BY 2.0 via Flickr. (2) Florida State University by David Mark, Public Domain via Pixabay. (3) “Digging for bait #beach #fishing #instagram #iphoneography #worms” by Wapster, CC BY 2.0 via Flickr. Featured image credit: Pencil drawing book by 3844328, Public Domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Richard Dixon

    I am not generally persuaded by attempts at English spelling reform – not least as I am one of the (albeit much diminished) minority who still gets gainful employment because I have been able to master its wondrous inconsistencies.

    However, as someone who successfully navigated a PhD in eel endocrinology before ending up as the pedant-in-chief of The Times, by way of sports subediting (copy editing) at the News of the World, for the sheer hell of it I’d definitely be in favour of reforming the spelling of ‘fish’ – following the suggestion widely but probably wrongly attributed to George Bernard Shaw, to ‘ghoti’.

    For those unfamiliar with this little diversion, the logic is:
    gh, pronounced [f] as in enough [ɪˈnʌf] or tough [tʌf];
    o, pronounced [ɪ] as in women [ˈwɪmɪn]; and
    ti, pronounced [ʃ] as in nation [ˈneɪ̯ʃən] or motion [ˈməʊʃən

  2. Maggie

    Spelling Reform problem: What dialect of English would be used? I am all for keeping the current system as it is fun to see some of the history of the word, for example, “knight”. I’m OK with ads using “nite” or lite” for “night” and “light”, however, as I think of them as “ad-ese.” I think “lite” actually has a different meaning, that is “less fat.”

  3. Stephen Goranson

    Fish spelled ghoti apparently first appeared in an 1855 letter, long before Shaw, as related here:

  4. Masha Bell

    I have been a supporter of spelling reform for over 20 years and have become increasingly less optimistic about its prospects, yet also more strongly convinced that it is desperately needed, because the inconsistencies of English spelling do enormous harm. This is probably at least partly due to me witnessing one of my grandsons being even more lastingly turned off reading at primary school than my son was.

    Leaving English spelling as it is, seems criminally negligent to me. The time and effort which the learning of thousands of words with irregular spellings incurs, is hugely wasteful. The reading problems which many of them also create, make me angry. Many children have difficulty learning much of anything. English spelling makes their already meagre educational prospects even smaller.

    What makes me particularly angry is that English spelling is chaotic, mainly because a succession of stupid people messed it up (see History page of EnglishSpellingProblems blog). If we merely reversed some of the deliberate changes made by silly scribes, greedy printers and pompous Samuel Johnson, English spelling would become vastly more learner-friendly, easier to teach, with much less failure.

    I am not optimistic about the prospects of an English spelling reform any time soon. Nevertheless, I hope that as more people become familiar with my analysis of English spelling, and the reading and spelling difficulties which they incur, change may gradually creep closer.

  5. Jevgēnijs Kaktiņš

    I was recently following with great interest the discussion about Ortographic reform of Latvian taking place in Latvian press of 1860-1920. Main features of which would be abolishing Gothic script or fracture and converting to Latin letters, abolishing double letters for consonants as was common in German on which our spelling was modelled, replacing letter H as lengthening sign, replacing such letters as sch, tsch, dsch by single letters š, č, ž . dž and changing convention of using short and long s letters with and without stripes (replaced by s and z), replacing z by c , using digraph ie instead of ee for diphthong, not lengthening oh as it doesn’t exist in Latvian words so o is normally used for diphthongs except foreign words etc. Gradually it has become widely accepted but only under authoritarian rule cemented in law as Gothic script was beloved among ordinary readers up to 1940s. So for now we have almost perfect entirely phonetic spelling with some derivational conventions (e.g. x could be used for laix (time, laiks) or kunx (Mr, kungs, this form was used in 16th century) but as words have to be declined root stem letter always remains unless assimilation happens in derivations). Festina lente and I believe future generation will accept English spelling reform with much gratitude.

  6. Stephen Goranson

    Anatoly, in relation to your July 2006 discussion,
    “Jes’ copasetic, boss,”; Being Also a Note on Frank Vizetelly
    there is now some additional evidence about the word’s propagation in a 1920 early Prohibition Era song recorded in 1921 by Ethel Waters, as explained here:

  7. Rudy Troike

    A small footnote on [l]’s — James Sledd, who was from Atlanta, suggested that vowel harmony could be found in his speech, and cited his pronunciation of “Billy”, which had a very ‘bright’ [l], and a final vowel matching the first.
    –Rudy Troike

Comments are closed.