Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Children’s games and some problematic English spellings

Several years ago, I wrote a series of posts titled “The Oddest English Spellings.” Later, The English Spelling Society began to prepare a new version of the Reform, and I let a team of specialists deal with such problems. Yet an email from one of our regular correspondents suggested to me that perhaps one more post in this blog may reinforce the interest of the public in how we spell English.

This is a knot. Will it survive Spelling Reform?

Most people will probably agree that “mute” letters are a nuisance. Who needs ch in chthonic, p in pneumonia and psychology, or t in whistle, listen, and wrestle? This is especially true of consonants, and in the past, I have attacked gnaw, gnash, and gnat (gnats are hard to attack; see the header image), but treated know with compassion, because it coexists with acknowledge (aknowledge would certainly suffice!), but knee, knob, knife, and a few others are sad fossils: gn and kn have been silent in those words for at least three centuries. The efforts to reform English spelling are underway, and I very much hope that those efforts will bring fruit and that comunal service will be aknowleged. But in such a momentous endeavor, as in medicine, the most important thing is to do no harm. Perhaps knot might survive the Reform or become nott, to remain distinct from not and, true to its meaning, form an indissoluble union with knotted.

Especially troublesome is gn in the middle of some words. Dignity is of course fine, but deign is not, because modern speakers do not connect those etymologically related words. Let there be Dane and dein or dain (compare ordain) in English! Reign is tougher, since rein and rain already exist, while rane looks totally unfamiliar, and this is bad; also, interregnum preserves a weak link between reign and its Romance past. I am saying all this to reinforce my main point: in a language like English, with its confusing and maddeningly difficult spelling, few changes are possible across the board. The great number of homophones (Dane, deign; rain, rein, reign, arraign) complicates our task even further.

It would be tempting to adopt one spelling (dane) for all the “dein” words (the latter being a phonetic transcription) and, among other things, forget about the useless capitalization of Dane. After all, though we pronounce them alike, in speech we never confuse Dane and deign: context disambiguates such words for us. Perhaps we needn’t differentiate them on paper either? Don’t we have homophones and homographs like junk “trash” and junk “vessel”; “rash “eruption on the skin” and rash “hasty”; hail “salutation” and hail “falling from the sky”, and are none the worse for the existence of this medley? Unfortunately, any spelling reform, even the most modest one, is a serious social cataclysm, and the less people are inconvenienced, the better. Revolutions are exciting events for historians but often less so for victims and survivors. Perhaps, as I have often said, the Reform should be carried out in several steps.

Storming of the Bastille. Revolutions are good to describe. (“Prise de la Bastille” by unknown artist, via Wikimedia)

Yet some things are clear. Align is sometimes spelled as aline, but rarely. Yet it is the best spelling for this verb. French aligner, from à ligne, goes back to Latin ad lineam. In French, gn designates a palatalized consonant, but in English it means nothing (an irritating mute letter). Align is also an ideal example for countering the insistence on the etymological principle as a guiding one for writing English words. The opponents of the Reform bewail a possible loss of historical ties, as though modern spelling is supposed to function as a substitute for a manual of language history.

We have Latin linea and French ligne. Whose heritage should we treasure more? I think we should, wherever possible, forget the past, treasure common sense, and (in this case) write line, aline, alinement, and so forth. A similar case is the spelling of rain. The Gothic for “rain” is rign (the form was recorded in the fourth century. In Old Icelandic, we find regn and in Modern German, Regen (from regan). The Common Germanic form must have had g in the root. In Old English, the word was also spelled with g, even though in this word, g had the value of Modern English y in yes. Should we spell rain as regn, to honor its distant past?

The stimulus for this post was a recent letter in which our correspondent asked me whether feint, faint, fain, and feign are related. The history of all four words is known. Feign goes back to Old French feign-; the situation with it is the same as with reign: in French, the letter g makes sense, while in English it does not. The infinitive of this verb is feindre (no g), and Old French for feint was feinte, the feminine past participle of that same feindre.

Thus, feign and feint are almost doublets, and indeed, feint means “feigned attack.” (It would therefore have been much more sensible to spell those words as fein and feint.) Faint, again from Old French faint or feint “feigned, sluggish, cowardly,” is also a continuation of the past participle of feindre. The verb faint was recorded somewhat later than the adjective faint.

It follows that faint is a full etymological doublet of feint! If we disregard the details, we can say that faint and feint are two variants of the same word, while feign is very closely related to them. Given such examples, perhaps even the most ardent supporters of the etymological principle in spelling will agree that at least sometimes it should be treated without too much reverence. (To avoid misunderstanding: I am not suggesting that faint and feint should be spelled alike. Today, my subject is only gn.)

Feigning fainting? Next to it a real feint!” (Left: “A lady fainting after bloodletting”, by Egelon van der Neer. Right: “Korea London Women Team Fencing” by Korean Olympic Committee)

Fains I (a formula of truce in games) is more problematic. Its local synonym feign knights looks like a garbled version of some phrase, and no one knows whether fain or feign is meant in it. The adjective fain “willing” (he is fain to discuss the problem) and the adverb fain “willingly” go back to Old English. They are archaic but still recognizable.

In the indispensable Notes and Queries, a hundred and fifty years ago, a long discussion of faintits fizzled out without a solution (faintits is one of many variants of fains I), but the idea that fain(s) derives from feign (so already in Notes and Queries) makes sense. The connection with fen (from fend) looks less probable. Even less probable is tracing fain(s) to fane “temple,” from Latin, a word almost forgotten, though it was much used in poetry by Byron and his contemporaries. Children’s games tend to preserve ancient formulas. Eeny meeny is a classic example; yet a Latin noun is an unlikely source of fains I ~ fains it.

Questions and comments are always inspiring. The query about feign and its lookalikes resulted in this post on the use of gn in the words of Modern English. If you are interested in such things, look up coin and coign in dictionaries, shed a tear while tracing the history of arraign, wonder at the fortunes of poignant and pungent, but, most importantly, don’t feign indifference when it comes to Spelling Reform and the Spelling Congress announced by the Spelling Society. Other than that, for today the game is over. Fains I!

Feature image by Hans Braxmeier from Pixabay

Recent Comments

  1. Gavin Wraith

    I have never heard chthonic pronounced without the initial guttural. I don’t mind kthonic if you must, but why not stick to what the Romans did? It is a bit late to purge their transliterations now. I like to see (and often to hear) the fossils left in our words. A Danish niece of mine has just had her first baby which is to be named Tor, not Thor. That is as sad as ‘sentrum’ on Norwegian roadsigns. But I would not object to ‘whissel’, ‘lissen’ or ‘thissel’. Nor would I mind the reintroduction of the yog in ‘regn’ – just lissen to how that diphthong is pronounced in Ireland!. If English spelling is to be reformed which English are you referring to? Whose pronunciation makes the rule? The more orthographic the less universal. I fear your zeal may be too late; the next generation will only be using emoticons and logograms anyway.

  2. Vivian Ramalingam

    The spelling reform you seek is already taking place, due to the rule of thumb that governs phone-texting. CurTailment is also removing, among other things, guideposts such as suffixes (tails), first in texting, and now in speech. (Adverbs and participles are also depart; -ed is edited out.) The GN in French was added in the sixteenth century, due to the influence of French humanistic printers. Caxton’s Flemish typesetters gave us the “h” in “ghost” and “ghastly”. Whose pronunciation will prevail, in the lists of the Great Reform?

  3. joe

    U’re as nice as gold, Anatoly- give us your list of indispensable shortenings this year–say 95 give or take.i’ll use them and even find a way to get it published somewhere…don’t bet the farm in that regard; I may not succeed, but bet the farm i will try. Joe L

  4. Joe

    If there is a Lieberman List of No Brainer Spellings, what wud it consist of? I wud use it (& strive to see it in print). Pax,Joe

  5. Joe Little

    Anatoly,You, sir, are too coy by half: GIVE US A LIST of your indispensable shortr spellings. You r not the only one who dances rhythmically near the subject without indulging it: RichardVenezky, in the US, wud’ve provided a list if asked.I didn’t ask in time. I’m asking u–in time. It need not be exhaustive; indeed exhaustive is exhausting. I’d settle for indispensable. 95, give or take. Think Luther; his was an indispensable list. Call it your Liberman List (i kno i will)…i’ll even get u started with my Little List of 15:
    -> bizness/duz/sez
    -> cudn’t/shud/wud
    you->u u/u’ll/u’ve/u’re/ur/urself
    I wud include it in ur list if u kno what’s fine for u, but u may hav something more “rithmic” in mind.

  6. Masha Bell

    Re spelling reform and accents.
    Educated English, the kind that most speakers of English understand and prefer to hear, and S2 students learn, is pretty stable. There is also no need to make EngSpel perfect. Just making learning to read easier by reducing its worse iniquities w’d be a g’d start (See my ImprovingEnglishSpelling blog). Too many spellings are used for more than one sound, e.g. o in ‘on, only, once, other, woman, women …’ And the 300+ heterographs like it’s/its do nothing but waste educational time. The 2,000+ homophones that hav only one spelling (bank, tank, rank…) pose no comprehension problems.

    Continuing to put up with a shambolic spelling system entails many costs which defenders of the current system like to ignore (see my EnglishSpellingProblems blog if interested). “The Write Offs” on Ch 4 drew attention to some of them recently. But sadly, failed to make any link to Eng Spel.
    Most people also overlook or are not aware of the fact that most English reading and writing difficulties were caused by deliberate changes to the original English spelling system. Consonant doubling, for example was turned into a shoDDy boDy almost entirely by Sam Johnson.

  7. Gavin Wraith

    Many other European languages seem to have much more regular spelling. The problem for English is the multiplicity of vowels, and their variation in sound from one dialect to another. The Latin alphabet being insufficient in size to cater for the sounds, the fact that the leading scriptoria in the Middle Ages were located in regions with different dialects, has been partly responsible for the present situation. Use of phonetic symbols does not help, because vowels are now not constants but functions from dialects to sounds. The phrase ‘Bath bun’ is a shibboleth to distinguish north from south, for example.

  8. Constantinos Ragazas


    If words have history (and they do!) spelling reform is akin to rewriting history for political expedience! Always a bad idea!

    I must reiterate what I have said here before: the origins of “eeny meeny” is likely the Greek “ena mena” (one by one). Which is in essence what counting is! And what such ‘counting jingles’ do! No other explanation can be more clear and sensible!


  9. a. langley

    Spelling reform in English is a chimera. There is no single even mildly influential authority with any clout that can decree how English is to be spelled.

    All one can do is make learned suggestions and hope they catch on, which is highly unlikely given the number of attempts that have failed in the past. English seems to be the most anarchistic of languages as well as the most conservative and oddly enough also democratic.

    Why democratic? Because whatever a majority of English speakers use, is de facto English. No committee or council or academy or authority can go against the numbers.

    Which is probably exactly why English is such a versatile and widely used language. No one gets to lord it over users and tell them how to speak or spell. Once a new threshold is reached, that is how English is.

    So good luck, but in view of past efforts at spelling reform, I wouldn’t expect too much.

  10. Allan Campbell

    Kostas: Spelling change does not change words.

    Ar “jail” and “gaol” different words or just different spellings?

    Words ar not ment to be museum exhibits; they ar ment to be tools to facilitate ritten communication in the here and now.

    They ar tools. Their spellings need to be upgraded, just as most tools ar improved over time.

  11. Constantinos Ragazas

    Allan: The etymology (history) of a word is reflected in its spelling. When that spelling is changed its “rewriting history”! And that takes us away from our roots. Putting us on the slippery slope to intellectual and moral anarchy.

  12. Allan Campbell

    Kostas: The etymology of words is ritely the concern of etymologists.

    Its of little or no concern to most word users.

    When driving a car i’m not that interested in its history, or that of its predecessor, the horse and carriage. Ar u?

  13. Constantinos Ragazas

    Allan: Words are not the same as cars!

    “Language is the house of Being!” Heidegger

    Need I say more? If so nothing more can ever be enough!

  14. Allan Campbell

    Kostas: I’m not discussing language. I’m discussing spelling. There is a difference1

  15. Constantinos Ragazas

    To state the obvious: Spelling is written language!

  16. Allan Campbell

    Now we ar getting down to the nitty-gritty!

    Ritten words, not spelling, ar the ritten language.

    Jail and gaol ar the same word. Different spellings.

Comments are closed.