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11 Weirdly Spelled Words—And How They Got That Way

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Why is English spelling so messed up? We get the same sounds spelled different ways (two, to, too), the same spellings pronounced different ways (chrome, machine, attach), and extra letters all over the place that don't even do anything (knee, gnu, pneumatic). There aren't always good reasons for these inconsistencies, but there are reasons. Here's a brief look at the history of English spelling told through 11 words.

1. THOUGHT

Way back in the 600s, Christian missionaries arrived in Anglo-Saxon England with their Roman alphabet and tried to make it fit the language they found there. They had to come up with ways to spell sounds like 'th' and /x/—a back of the throat consonant like the one in German "ach!" For a while they made use of runic characters (þ,?, ð) and various combinations of g, c, and h. Scribes eventually settled on 'th' and 'gh'. Some of the spellings "thought" has gone through include: þoht, ðoght, þou?te, thowgth, thouch, thotht, thoughte, and thowcht.

Later, English lost the /x/ sound, but only after the spelling conventions had been well established. Today, whenever you see one of those 'gh' spellings, say a little "ach!" in the memory of English /x/.

2. KNEAD

Two things happened in the early 1500s that really messed with English spelling. First, the new technology of the printing press meant publishers—rather than scribes—were in charge, and they started to standardize spelling. At the very same time, the Great Vowel Shift was underway. People were changing the way they pronounced vowels in vast groups of words, but the publishers weren't recognizing the changes yet. This is why we ended up with so much inconsistency: 'ea' sounds different in knead, bread, wear and great. Along with the vowel changes, English lost the /k/ sound from /kn/ words, the /w/ from /wr/ words, and the /g/ from gnat and gnaw. But by the time the change was complete, the writing habits had already been established.

3. WEDNESDAY

Woden was an Anglo-Saxon god associated with both fury and poetic inspiration. He also had a career in curing horses and carrying off the dead, and Wednesday is his day. Woden's day has gone through various spellings—wodnesdaeg, Weodnesdei, Wenysday, wonysday, Weddinsday—but even though Shakespeare tried to match pronunciation with his very reasonable "Wensday," it didn't stick. Woden got to keep his 'd' and his day.

4. JEOPARDY

The Romans helped get the Anglo-Saxon language into writing, but when the French arrived with William the Conqueror in 1066, they brought their own words with them. English vocabulary was never the same again. One of the expressions they brought was iu parti (jeu parti, "divided game") which became Iupartye, ieoperde, and yeopardie before settling into its current form. The 'eo' reflects the gist of the original French vowel (as it does in "people") and the location of the 'r' was already fixed in the spelling by the time it wandered over next to the 'p' in pronunciation. The roaming habits of the 'r' have gotten a lot of word spellings into trouble. See: different, temperate, separate.

5. FEBRUARY

Those sneaky 'r's also like to disappear completely, especially when there are two of them near each other (see: surprise, berserk, governor). February also came into English from French. The French feverier first became English feverere, or feverell. But in the 16th and 17th centuries, a craze for all things classical caused writers to start re-Latinizing their spelling—making words look more like their ancient language sources, whatever their current pronunciation. It was a way to make your documents look more intelligent and fancy. And so, in writing, they made February look more like Februarius.

6. RECEIPT

Receipt is also a victim of the Latinizing craze. When the word came into English from French it had no 'p', and no one pronounced it as if it did. Enthusiastic Latinizers later added the 'p' on analogy with the Latin receptus. This is also how debt and doubt got their 'b's, salmon and solder got their 'l's, and indict got its 'c.'

7. ISLAND

Most of the words that got Latinized did have some distant connection, through French, with the ancient Latin words that dictated their new spellings. However, sometimes a Latin-inspired letter got stuck into a word that hadn't even come through Latin. "Island" came from the Old English íglund, and was spelled illond, ylonde, or ilande until someone picked up the 's' from Latin insula and stuck it where it had never been meant to be.

8. ASTHMA

In addition to re-Latinizing, there was Greekification (not a technical term!). Asthma first showed up as asma or asmyes. But words associated with science and medicine were particularly susceptible to the urge to connect to the classics, so people started writing asthma instead of asma, diarrhea instead of diaria, phlegm instead of fleme…ok, I'll stop.

9. COLONEL

From the very beginning, when this word came into English in the 1500s, there were two spelling variants and two pronunciations. Coronel came through French and colonel through Italian. Colonel preserved the look of the related word "column," but coronel brought a nice, regal "crown" to mind (though it wasn't actually etymologically related). So it went back and forth until we settled into the 'l' spelling with the 'r' pronunciation. Yay compromise?

10. HORS D'OEUVRES

Another wave of French words came into English starting around 1700. They came from the high life, fashion, courtly manners, cuisine, and the arts. We got words like bouillon, casserole, vinaigrette, protégé, ballet, bouquet, boutique, silhouette, etiquette, and faux pas. These words have kept their French spellings, and we get as close as we can to their pronunciations. "Orderves" isn't bad for hors d'oeuvres. It's better than "horse dovers," in any case.

11. ZUCCHINI

That's how you spell it, and say it, in Italian. It's just one of the many words we've snatched up from whatever languages we've bumped up against in modern times. The borrowing has never stopped. And all languages are welcome. English says, "Come on in, and bring your crazy spelling with you!" We do our best with guerrilla, piñata, llama, angst, kitsch, fjord, Czech, gnocchi, and zucchini, even if we don't always remember exactly how to spell them.

This post was originally published in 2012.

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10 Facts About Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary
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October 16 is World Dictionary Day, which each year celebrates the birthday of the American lexicographer Noah Webster, who was born in Connecticut in 1758. Last year, Mental Floss marked the occasion with a list of facts about Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language—the enormous two-volume dictionary, published in 1828 when Webster was 70 years old, that established many of the differences that still divide American and British English to this day. But while Webster was America’s foremost lexicographer, on the other side of the Atlantic, Great Britain had Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Johnson—whose 308th birthday was marked with a Google Doodle in September—published the equally groundbreaking Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, three years before Webster was even born. Its influence was arguably just as great as that of Webster’s, and it remained the foremost dictionary of British English until the early 1900s when the very first installments of the Oxford English Dictionary began to appear.

So to mark this year’s Dictionary Day, here are 10 facts about Johnson’s monumental dictionary.

1. IT WASN’T THE FIRST DICTIONARY.

With more than 40,000 entries, Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was certainly the largest dictionary in the history of the English language at the time but, despite popular opinion, it wasn’t the first. Early vocabularies and glossaries were being compiled as far back as the Old English period, when lists of words and their equivalents in languages like Latin and French first began to be used by scribes and translators. These were followed by educational word lists and then early bilingual dictionaries that began to emerge in the 16th century, which all paved the way for what is now considered the very first English dictionary: Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall—in 1604.

2. SAMUEL JOHNSON BORROWED FROM THE DICTIONARIES THAT CAME BEFORE HIS.

In compiling his dictionary, Johnson drew on Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium Britanicum, which had been published in 1730. (Ironically, a sequel to Bailey’s dictionary, A New Universal Etymological English Dictionary, was published in the same year as Johnson’s, and borrowed heavily from his work; its author, Joseph Nicoll Scott, even gave Johnson some credit for its publication.)

But just as Johnson had borrowed from Bailey and Scott had borrowed from Johnson, Bailey, too had borrowed from an earlier work—namely John Kersey’s Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum (1708)—which was based in part on a technical vocabulary, John Harris’s Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. Lexicographic plagiarism was nothing new.

3. THE DICTIONARY WASN’T THE ONLY THING JOHNSON WROTE.

Although he’s best remembered as a lexicographer today, Johnson was actually something of a literary multitasker. As a journalist, he wrote for an early periodical called The Gentlemen’s Magazine. As a biographer, he wrote the Life of Mr Richard Savage (1744), a memoir of a friend and fellow writer who had died the previous year. Johnson also wrote numerous poems (London, published anonymously in 1738, was his first major published work), a novel (Rasselas, 1759), a stage play (Irene, 1749), and countless essays and critiques. He also co-edited an edition of Shakespeare’s plays. And in between all of that, he even found time to investigate a supposed haunted house in central London.

4. IT WAS THE FIRST DICTIONARY TO USE QUOTATIONS.

Johnson’s dictionary defined some 42,773 words, each of which was given a uniquely scholarly definition, complete with a suggested etymology and an armory of literary quotations—no fewer than 114,000 of them, in fact.

Johnson lifted quotations from books dating back to the 16th century for the citations in his dictionary, and relied heavily on the works of authors he admired and who were popular at the time—Shakespeare, John Milton, Alexander Pope, and Edmund Spenser included. In doing so, he established a lexicographic trend that still survives in dictionaries to this day.

5. IT TOOK MORE THAN EIGHT YEARS TO WRITE.

Defining 42,000 words and finding 114,000 quotes to help you do so takes time: Working from his home off Fleet Street in central London, Johnson and six assistants worked solidly for over eight years to bring his dictionary to print. (Webster, on the other hand, worked all but single-handedly, and used the 22 years it took him to compile his American Dictionary to learn 26 different languages.)

6. JOHNSON WAS WELL PAID FOR HIS TROUBLES.

Johnson was commissioned to write his dictionary by a group of London publishers, who paid him a princely 1,500 guineas—equivalent to roughly $300,000 (£225,000) today.

7. HE LEFT OUT A LOT OF WORDS.

The dictionary’s 42,000-word vocabulary might sound impressive, but it’s believed that the English language probably had as many as five times that many words around the time the dictionary was published in 1755. A lot of that shortfall was simply due to oversight: Johnson included the word irritable in four of his definitions, for instance, but didn’t list it as a headword in his own dictionary. He also failed to include a great many words found in the works of the authors he so admired, and in several of the source dictionaries he utilized, and in some cases he even failed to include the root forms of words whose derivatives were listed elsewhere in the dictionary. Athlete, for instance, didn’t make the final cut, whereas athletic did.

Johnson’s imposition of his own tastes and interests on his dictionary didn't help matters either. His dislike of French, for example, led to familiar words like unique, champagne, and bourgeois being omitted, while those he did include were given a thorough dressing down: ruse is defined as “a French word neither elegant nor necessary,” while finesse is dismissed as “an unnecessary word that is creeping into the language."

8. HE LEFT OUT THE LETTER X.

    At the foot of page 2308 of Johnson’s Dictionary is a note merely reading, “X is a letter which, though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language."

    9. HIS DEFINITIONS WEREN’T ALWAYS SO SCHOLARLY.

      As well as imposing his own taste on his dictionary, Johnson also famously employed his own sense of humor on his work. Among the most memorable of all his definitions is his explanation of oats as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” But he also defined monsieur as “a term of reproach for a Frenchman,” excise as “a hateful tax levied upon commodities and adjudged not by the common judges of property but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid,” and luggage as “anything of more weight than value.” As an example of how to use the word dull, he explained that “to make dictionaries is dull work.”

      10. HE POKED LOTS OF FUN AT HIS OWN OCCUPATION.

      Listed on page 1195 of his dictionary, Johnson’s definition of lexicographer was “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge.”

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      Something Something Soup Something
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      This Game About Soup Highlights How Tricky Language Is
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      Something Something Soup Something

      Soup, defined by Merriam-Webster as "a liquid food especially with a meat, fish, or vegetable stock as a base and often containing pieces of solid food," is the ultimate simple comfort food. But if you look closer at the definition, you'll notice it's surprisingly vague. Is ramen soup? What about gumbo? Is a soy vanilla latte actually a type of three-bean soup? The subjectivity of language makes this simple food category a lot more complicated than it seems.

      That’s the inspiration behind Something Something Soup Something, a new video game that has players label dishes as either soup or not soup. According to Waypoint, Italian philosopher, architect, and game designer Stefano Gualeni created the game after traveling the world asking people what constitutes soup. After interviewing candidates of 23 different nationalities, he concluded that the definition of soup "depends on the region, historical period, and the person with whom you're speaking."

      Gualeni took this real-life confusion and applied it to a sci-fi setting. In Something Something Soup Something, you play as a low-wage extra-terrestrial worker in the year 2078 preparing meals for human clientele. Your job is to determine which dishes pass as "soup" and can be served to the hungry guests while avoiding any items that may end up poisoning them. Options might include "rocks with celery and batteries in a cup served with chopsticks" or a "foamy liquid with a candy cane and a cooked egg served in a bowl with a fork."

      The five-minute game is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but Gualeni also hopes to get people thinking about real philosophical questions. According to its description page, the game is meant to reveal "that even a familiar, ordinary concept like 'soup' is vague, shifting, and impossible to define exhaustively."

      You can try out Something Something Soup Something for free on your browser.

      [h/t Waypoint]

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