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Etymology gleanings for April 2020

Spelling Reform

I have read two comments on my post of April 29, 2020 and John Cowan’s post and came to the expected conclusion: even those who favor the idea of the Reform will never agree on what should change and in what order changes should be instituted. Every suggestion makes sense. For example, respell knack as nack, because k is mute there, or: don’t meddle with knack, because we are used to this spelling. As for the general principles, they have been discussed for more than a century and a half, and every possible objection has been known to everybody who has followed the history of this fated enterprise. Yes, any Standard (Received Pronunciation or Received Spelling, or Received Grammar) is undemocratic and reflects the influence of the greatest authors and the tyranny of the educated class. It will always, at least partly, stand at cross-purposes with the habits of the speaking community, most of which cannot care less for what is right and what is wrong. However, when it comes to English spelling, any reform will be better than what we now have. Those who don’t distinguish between futile and feudal, title and tidal; cot and caught; duel ~ dual and jewel, etc. are made and will be made to spell them differently, and this is unfair. The horror of due and do is known to every American teacher (“Professor [often: Proffesor], when is the paper do?”). And yes, English has many varieties, and any norm will disadvantage somebody.

A jewel of a dual duel. Eugene Onegin and Vladimir Lensky’s duel by Ilya Repin. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

It does not seem that in our discussion we are an inch closer to an agreement than our predecessors were in the days of George Bernard Shaw. Continuing the discussion in this blog would be a waste of time. Therefore, I’ll only make my point clear for the last time. Many people have offered or are ready to offer their variants of Reformed Spelling. They are intellectuals. Unlike them, in this one situation, I am mainly a politician. It is all the same to me whether knack will survive the Reform or change to nack. I want the idea of the Reform to be accepted by the public, but the public, I am sure, will oppose a revolution and the changes that will affect the most common words. Therefore, I would try to kill this monster in several stages and leave any, said, and their likes for dessert. Tampering with them today will cause an uproar and doom the rest of the proposal. This one war can be won only by attrition. Everybody wants to be scholarly; by contrast, I want to be practical. At present, the world has more pressing tasks than meddling with English spelling, but eventually the problem will resurface. The Spelling Society will offer its proposal. I can only hope that all of us will unite behind it, regardless of whether we’ll like it or not.

Counterpoint: grammar (the new normal)

A split infinitive in animal guise. Photo by Tiia Monto. CC-by-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

It seems that it is easier to change the way people spell words than the way they speak. But no! Look at the examples of the type I have cited many times. Out of the blue, they appeared for a singular person (“When a student comes, I never make them wait”) and became the norm overnight. Then somebody decided that all infinitives should be split, that it is better to say to be or to not be than to be or not to be. We also want to make a proposal turned into we want to also make a proposal, etc. People writing to newspapers bend over backwards, in order to split: “They decided to also not only go there, but even….” Such constructions have begun cropping up in oral speech too. So not everything is like Shakespeare’s “rocks impregnable.”

Another curious change in American English is the spread of the progressive (continuous) forms. Somebody told me that it had begun with McDonald’s ad or slogan: “I’m lovin’ it,” but they must have overheard it. Anyway, not the greatest fan of McDonald’s menu, I met this innovation without enthusiasm. By contrast, the world swallowed it hook, line, and sinker. “Also, Sweden is a socialist country with health care for all. Is he wanting us to have a very high death rate and Medicare for All?” Because of the pandemic, in some stores, older people are encouraged to shop early in the morning, and, it appears, “they are liking it.” From a speech by a prominent politician: “They’re going to have to do that regardless of what a stay-at-home order looks like because people are naturally understanding that we’re going to have to social distance, because….” I find the phrase social distance silly (isn’t distance enough?), the verbal phrase to social distance ugly, but they are understanding….? If people agreed (without any pressure) to torture grammar for no reason whatsoever, perhaps they will also agree to spell aggression with one g and deign without it?

Just in case someone decides to tell me that the use of forms like they are liking it is perfectly normal: I know that the present continuous has various uses. Traditionally, it has avoided see and hear (Can you see me? The answer is not supposed to be: “No, I am sorry, I am not seeing you”), but this is what I have been hearing sounds fine (at least today in American English and perhaps elsewhere). Although this tense designates actions happening at the moment of speech, the emphatic statement I am always losing my keys is perfectly acceptable. But the new-fangled usage? No, I am neither liking nor understanding it.

Chinese and Indo-European

I’ll refrain from citing Chang’s examples, because his work mentioned in the post for April 14, 2020, is available online, and anyone can consult it. My objections were the same as those given in the comments. Knowing nothing about the history of the Chinses language, I could not determine the age of the words cited in the paper, but I also feared that they were modern, and comparing them with Pokorny’s roots seemed to me incautious, to put it mildly. The methodology (comparing reconstructed roots and words of a living language) is indeed inadmissible. Chang did not provide a historical background for his hypothesis, but, according to him, the Indo-Europeans and the Chinese lived in such close contact that hundreds of words are common to both groups. (Incidentally, he opposed the idea of the Sino-Tibetan family.) Finally, his poor knowledge of the facts over which I do have control made me suspicious of his entire framework.

Some problematic words

Aloof. In explaining the origin of the word aloof, I mentioned the fact that such a-words (afraid, astride, adrift, etc.) are always used predicatively. The comment pointed out to the attributive use of aloof. This use is rare and shows that aloof is no longer felt to belong fully with the a-group. But it would probably still be odd to say: “My brother is an aloof man,” where private, reticent, withdrawn, or reserved is expected. I have recently run into aloof transcendence of God, but transcendence is “aloof” by definition, and the phrase struck me as an example of pomposity.

Glove. Dutch gleuf “slit” is not related to it. Gleuf has cognates all over Germanic: Icel. gleypa “to swallow,” and many others, meaning “yawn; bite, etc.”

Fix. “How did fix come to have almost opposite meanings? I can fix that—good. I’ll fix him—bad, I’m in a real fix—bad. I’ll fix dinner—good.” The verb to fix appeared in late Middle English with the meaning “to make firm.” The noun, originally an Americanism, is half a millennium later. Like so many other things, being “transfixed” may be good (stability is desirable) or bad (lack of resilience is to be avoided). Hence the clash of senses that puzzled our correspondence. In American slang, fix seems to have only negative connotations.

Dante Alighieri. British School. Via the Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Incontinence. Our correspondence writes: “Recently I picked up Dante’s The Divine Comedy and came across the term incontinence, and it was defined as ‘including all wrong actions due to the inadequate control of natural appetites or desires’. It was stated that this goes back to Aristotle’s division of reprehensible actions: incontinence, brutishness, and malice or vice…. When I looked for current definitions, all seem to be related to bodily functions. No reference is made about the past definition by Aristotle.” The question was about “how a word changes its meaning.” An answer to this question would require a book. Here I’ll say only two things. 1) When a word of Romance origin ends up in English, it starts a new life. You see French foyer and believe that you understand it. Alas, in French, this word means “home.” 2) Other than that, meanings deteriorate (the ancient meaning of the root of whore meant “dear”), ameliorate (fond once meant “silly”), broaden or narrow their range of application. Long ago, book meant “record, document,” and now it refers to any work consisting of pages put together. Incontinence has obviously undergone narrowing.

A reinforcing simile. In Tennessee, they say: “As heavy as Hoopenheimer horse.” Why? I know nothing about Mr. Hoopenheimer (perhaps someone from Tennessee will enlighten us?). Judging by the spelling, the name is Dutch, and people bearing this name exist, but what bothers me is the modern meaning of hoopen “penis.” Though I don’t know the age of this word in American slang, hooperdooper “a remarkable thing; an important person” is rather old. All this makes me think that the associations the name evokes are more important than the identity of the horse’s owner. The in-your-face alliteration (h-h-h) reinforces this suspicion. Comments are welcome!

In search of Mr. Hoopenheimer. OSU Special Collections & Archives. No known copyright restrictions. Via Flickr.

Feature image credit: Noah Webster, The American spelling book (1790), p11. No known copyright restrictions. Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Recent Comments

  1. Masha Bell

    The worst obstacle to reform is ignorance.
    There is little public awareness that English spelling makes both learning to read and write exceptionally difficult. Few people know that learning to read English particularly takes roughly ten times longer than with the exceptionally regular Finnish and Korean orthographies. The costs of this are even less understood. The Spelling Society should pour its efforts into public information campaigns instead of endlessly contemplating and debating which spellings to should be changed.

  2. Joe Little

    I’m the best pragmatist in the movement. I push simpler spellings that are already in transition but not quite simple: thru, tho, altho, donut, thru-out, laff, coff, enuf, ruff, tuff, luv, u, u’r, u’ll, u’v, & cetera. No-one in reformdom is as conservative as I, tho maybe u.

  3. Constantinos Ragazas

    Joe Little,

    You have a point. Language in general, and spelling in particular, are naturally evolving to meet the needs of people. Along with “emojies”, btw imho! Such change is inevitable and unstoppable.

    So why do we need a cabal of academicians dictating “proper reform”? It’s the peoples language after all! As “language is their house of Being”.


  4. Allan Campbell

    Joe: along with u, i hav carried sines outside the Scripps National Spelling Bee finals when they wer in downtown DC. One was worded Enuf is enuf. Enough is too much.

    I now regret that spelling. Enuf does not giv enny indication where the stress is, It should hav been Enuff.

    Your list here has laff and coff, single syllable words that could hav managed with a single f, tho i think dubble is better. The two syllables in enuff demand a marker.

  5. Rudy Troike

    I wonder whether my response to Masha was ever actually published. When I checked back, it had disappeared. I hope she could read it. The Pure English Society would not only have us restore 10th c. (not 7th) spelling. but the proper use of cases, including distinguishing dative vs accusative pronouns.

    The example of “hearing” (“this is what I have been hearing sounds fine”) does not refer to the actual perception of sound. A comparable non-perceptual use of “seeing” has been around for a long time: “She has been seeing John [i.e., dating] for six months”, or “I’m not seeing [understanding] what you are getting at”but also perceptual “She has been seeing ghosts in her dreams.”

    The British vs. American use of “fix” is the subject of an old British joke: “If something is broken, why would they want to fix it?”

    No comment on my argument for adopting Chinese characters and getting past the spelling debate?


  6. Constantinos Ragazas

    The main aim for me is “communication” and “what is communicated”. How that happens is not important. As several comments here exemplify, with their oddball spelling and abbreviations of words.

    But there is a problem, if I need to look up an unfamiliar word in a dictionary and that word is oddly spelled.

    So really the only practical need for “correct spelling” is the common standard accepted by all. But we already have such standard and many dictionaries based on these. So why change “what is” true for all?

    Some would argue for reading/writing ease. But “sight reading” is far superior than “sound reading”! While, for a poor speller like me, automatic “spell-checkers” have been god send!

    I really don’t see the need for “spelling reform”.

    @Rudy: your comment to Masha is posted in the previous last week’s post.


  7. Allan Campbell

    Constantinos: U rite: “But there is a problem, if I need to look up an unfamiliar word in a dictionary and that word is oddly spelled.”

    I presume by “oddly” u meen it has been sensibly respelled. In which case, a contemporary dictionary would hav it, or u would be able to sound the word and lern its meening from its context.

  8. Rudy Troike

    As I mentioned before, the horse is long since out of the barn for spelling reform. With the international spread of English, not to mention multiple native language nations, who would take the first step? Even if 50 states in the US were to sign on to a compact to reform spelling, what would happen in Canada, Australia, and the rest of the former British Empire if they did not go along? Publishers would have to issue completely different editions for the US and the rest of the world, and no one outside the US would buy books printed in the US. With so much communication (like this blog) now electronically international, would readers of this blog (hosted by OXFORD U P, of all places!) in the US have to have filters for sources that originated outside the US to change the spelling (and vice-versa)? Or would we use Google Translate?

    As Kostas points out, most of our reading consists of sight-recognition. Just as readers of Chaucer have to struggle to recognize still-familiar words in different spelling guises, all children educated henceforth in the new spelling regime would struggle to read any of the millions of works — books, newspapers, magazines (and even instruction manuals!) published before the change. In an Orwellian world, this would be the norm (along with revisions of the content), but happily we are not there yet.

    But it would be equally chaotic if we tried to democratiz(s)e spelling, and urged everyone to spell according to their own usage. Your PEN would be my PIN. If Masha were a teacher, would she like to read 150 themes each semester all written according to each student’s spelling preference? If we ditched orthography for emojis, we would be back to Chinese characters, with thousands of emojis, including for marking past tense and plurals. And who would come up with these thousands of emojis? Would these differ from one country to another? This would be the opposite of international communication — and NO ONE would be able to read anything written before the Great Reform.

    NB: Language doesn’t change — people change language.


  9. Constantinos Ragazas

    Allan: what do we do when several words sound the same but are spelled differently? Spelling by sound wont work to discern which is what.

    The more I think of “spelling reform” the more unnecessary and disruptive it is. Rudy makes that point well.


  10. Allan Campbell

    Kostas: U ask:what do we do when several words sound the same but are spelled differently? Spelling by sound wont work to discern which is what.

    How do u manage when u see or hear a word such as bank, which has at leest four different meenings all spelled the same? Probbably, like the rest of us, u rely on context. We do this a lot. We ar well practisd at it.

  11. Constantinos Ragazas

    Allan: recognizing a known word in context is one thing. Looking up an unknown word in a dictionary written phonetically is another.

    How do you recognize and write phonetically words that sound the same but have different meanings?
    Such “phonetic spelling” of English words is the ultimate goal of “spelling reform” proponents. Its unnecessary and unworkable.


  12. Allan Campbell

    Kostas: What do u think the dictionaries, on-line and in book form, will be doing about spelling as it changes? They wont be sitting on their hands and losing customers. They will hav the “unknown word” ritten in the form that puzzles u.

    How do u currently deal with a word such as “b-a-r”, which has numerous meanings as a noun, verb, and preposition?

  13. Constantinos Ragazas

    Allan: The argument for “spelling reform” is to make reading/writing “phonic” and therefore simple.

    The argument has been made by me and Rudy and others “sight reading” is far better to “sound reading”. And now available automatic “spell checking” has eliminated spelling mistakes in writing. So where is the benefit to “spelling reform”?

    Further, any “spelling reform” will be very disruptive and confusing. Rewriting dictionaries around the world in many languages is just a small part of this.

    But if words were written “phonically” as they sound, that would make same sounding words with different meanings visually indistinguishable. Won’t it be better if such words have different spellings? With less reliance on content to make sense of them.

    Its not an insurmountable problem, but it is a problem. Why should we even allow the problem?

    The benefits to “spelling reform” are few. While the problems created by it are many! Most important for me is such “rewriting of history”. Which in principle I oppose.


  14. Allan Campbell

    Kostas: The point I am trying to make, and which u seem to be missing, is that we alredy hav “same sounding words with different meanings visually indistinguishable”, and we cope. And we dont hav spelling to help us when speeking.

    The benefits of upgrading our spelling may seem few to u, but in the eyes of a yung lerners they can be huge. International studies show that its mainly English-speeking jurisdictions that hav “long tales” of virtually illiterat scool leevers. http://spellingsociety.org/research

    Our young lerners take two or three years mor to feel confident with literacy than do students in other languages with efficient spelling tools. It can skew their view of lerning.

  15. Constantinos Ragazas

    Allan: “Our young lerners take two or three years mor to feel confident with literacy than do students in other languages …”

    American students also fall far behind other countries in math. How do you explain that?

    The problems with the education of American students are much deeper than reading difficulties due to spelling. The problem with simplistic solutions to the problem (aka, “spelling reform”) is that it obfuscates the underlying causes. And thus perpetuates the problem.

    In a past life, I taught math at a very exclusive private prep school. I’ve seen the problem first-hand.

    And one thing I observed is good students know “how to learn”. Our education system seeks to fill heads with content. But not provide “thinking tools” to process that content. To help students to “learn how to learn”.

    The problems with learning to read are the same problems as learning any other subject. It is more cultural than pedagogical. Though a change in pedagogy may help.

    “Spelling reform” may help minimally. But create more problems than it resolves.


  16. Allan Campbell

    Kostas Re falling behind in maths: As literacy is the basic ritten communication tool in a modern industrial society, failure to master it will impede other lerning, including maths.

    Re helping students to “learn how to learn”. If a child at a very impressionable age struggles with basic literacy achievement this will affect their attitude to lerning, If it is an exciting, enjoyable.and relativly quick process, they will be lerning to lern.

  17. Constantinos Ragazas

    Allan: “As literacy is the basic ritten communication tool in a modern industrial society, failure to master it will impede other lerning, including maths.”

    Except, often students that are very good in such “literacy skills” are poor in math, and visa versa. C.P. Snow saw this as “Two Cultures”. Your explanation fails.

    Spelling reform will not solve our problems. Just as all other simple minded education reforms in the past have not!


  18. Allan Campbell


    Not everybody needs to be good in maths. Everyone should be good in literacy

  19. Constantinos Ragazas

    Allan, tell that to Plato!

    Math is the Language of Objective Reasoning!

    Though not everybody needs to be good reasoning, we all need to be objective. Since objective truth unites us. While subjective beliefs divide us.

    The problem is not how much math a student knows. The problem is the inability to learn even rudimentary math. Since that may point to what the problem learning anything may be.

    And “spelling reform” will not show us that! But instead will hide that from us.


  20. Allan Campbell

    Kostas: Reasoning objectivly, u should hav no trubble realizing that easier rule-based spelling will help yung lerners to master literacy sooner and mor easily than will a hotch-potch spelling regeem that can be hard to follow.

  21. Constantinos Ragazas

    Allan: “rule-based spelling” may be the problem here! Kids get frustrated when adults constantly break their own rules. So yes, teaching them to read following rules that we constantly can’t follow will turn them off to learning. And discredit us in their eyes.

    But what if they learn to read just like they learn to speak? Naturally! Without rules. No rules learning to speak!

    I thing “spelling reform” will make things worse. Since then even the “principle of rule” cannot be trusted. Let alone our application of our rules!

    No simple minded solutions will solve our problems educating the youth. We need a radically different approach to reaching them. And that begins with us!

    No rules! Just being and becoming!


  22. Allan Campbell

    Kostas: As an objectivly reesoning adult it would not be too difficult for u also to follow the rule-based spelling and therefor not frustrate the yung ones

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