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.

12 Old-Timey Turkey Terms to Bring Back This Thanksgiving

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Want to spice up conversation this Thanksgiving? Use these terms while you’re talking turkey.

1. RUM COBBLE-COLTER

According to A new dictionary of the terms ancient and modern of the canting crew, in its several tribes, of Gypsies, beggers, thieves, cheats, &c., with an addition of some proverbs, phrases, figurative speeches, &c., first published in the late 1600s, a cobble-colter is a turkey. A rum cobble-colter, on the other hand, is "a fat large cock-turkey."

2. I GUESS IT’S ALL TURKEY

This American phrase is “a quaint saying indicating that all is equally good.”

3. AND 4. BUBBLY-JOCK AND BOBBLE-COCK

Bubbly-jock is Scottish slang for a male turkey, from the noise the bird makes. The term can also be used to describe “a stupid, boasting person.” Both usages might apply at your Thanksgiving dinner. Slang for a turkey in northern England, meanwhile, is bobble-cock, according to The Slang Dictionary: Or, The Vulgar Words, Street Phrases, and "Fast Expressions” of High and Low Society, published in 1864.

5. TURKEY MERCHANTS

According to 1884’s The Slang Dictionary: Etymological, Historical, and Anecdotal, this was a term for “dealers in plundered or contraband silk.” Previously, it referred to something more obvious: “a driver of turkeys and geese to market.”

6. ALDERMAN

A “well-stuffedturkey. An alderman in chains is a turkey with sausages; according to A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, published in 1788, the sausages “are supposed to represent the gold chain worn by those magistrates.”

7. COLD TURKEY RAP

According to Eric Partridge's A Dictionary of the Underworld: British and American, this 1928 term means "an accusation, a charge, against a person caught in the act." Perhaps you'll get a cold turkey rap for stealing seconds—or thirds—of your favorite dish this holiday.

8. BLOCK ISLAND TURKEY

An American slang term for salted cod, originating in Connecticut and Rhode Island.

9. TURKEY PUDDLE

Eighteenth-century slang for coffee.

10. SNOTERGOB

According to A Dictionary of the Scottish Language, snotergob is “the red part of a turkey’s head.”

11. RED AS A TURKEY COCK

This phrase dates back to 1630, according to Dictionary of Proverbs. It could refer to any kind of flushing of the face (including, perhaps, when your dad and your uncle are getting too worked up debating politics).

12. TO HAVE A TURKEY ON ONE’S BACK

According to the 1905 book A Dictionary of Slang and Colloquial English, this is what you say when someone has imbibed a bit too much: It means “to be drunk.”

40 Clever Words That Begin With the Letter C

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The letter C is a modern-day descendent of the Ancient Greek letter gamma, and as such originally represented a “g” sound rather than “k.” The Romans, however, confused everything; they typically used their letter C to represent both “g” and “k” sounds, avoiding the letter K (which was descended from the Greek kappa) almost entirely. Having one letter to represent multiple sounds proved confusing, and so Roman scribes invented a new letter, G, to represent “g,” which freed C to represent the “k” sound. So when the Roman alphabet was introduced to England, C was originally used for all instances of the “k” sound—as in cyng (Old English “king”), sticca (“stick”), lician (“like”), cneow (“knee”), and cniht (“knight”).

Just as things were starting to settle down, along came William the Conqueror. After the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, the English language adopted a number of words from French in which the Latin letter C was now being used to represent a “s” sound, like city, citizen, and circle. Old English speakers were now facing the same problem that the Romans had had, as their letter C was being used for two entirely different sounds. Ultimately, C typically came to be used in all the “s”-sounding words (known as “soft-C”), while the Greek K was rescued from the linguistic scrapheap and began to be used for the “hard-C” words.

This all means that C isn’t used as much today as it was in Old English [PDF], but you can still expect it to account for around 2.5 percent of a page of written English, and it accounts for 3.5 percent of all the words in a dictionary—including the 40 clever C-words collected and collated here.

1. CABBY-LABBY

Also called a cabby-lab, cabby-labby is an old Scots dialect word for a noisy quarrel or disagreement in which everyone involved is speaking at the same time. Should you ever need to, you can also use cabby-labby as a verb, meaning “to argue” or “to disagree.”

2. CACAFUEGO

Borrowed into English in the 1600s, a cacafuego or cacafugo is a blustering, swaggering boaster. It literally means “fire-pooper” in Spanish.

3. CACHINNATE

Derived from Latin, cachinnation is loud or raucous laughter, and to cachinnate is to laugh loudly or immoderately. Something that is cachinnatory, incidentally, makes you cachinnate.

4. CACOLOGY

Cacology literally means “evil-speaking,” and is used to refer to a poor choice of words or noticeably bad language. Likewise, a caconym is an ill-fitting or unpleasant name; a cachotechny is a poorly constructed device or work of art; and a cacotype is either a printing error, or a libelously insulting printed description or account.

5. CAIN-COLORED

Because the Cain of Cain and Abel is supposed to have had red hair, Shakespeare coined the term Cain-colored in The Merry Wives of Windsor to describe someone with a fair, reddish-colored beard.

6. CALAMISTRATION

A formal word for the process of curling your hair.

7. CALIDITY

Derived from the same root as calorie, if something is calid then it’s warm, and so calidity is simply another name for warmth or heat. A caliduct is a pipe for conducting hot air or heated water, as in a radiator.

8. CALLOMANIA

Someone who thinks that they’re more beautiful than they really are is a callomaniac. Someone who is calophantic, likewise, pretends to be better than they really are.

9. CAMAIEU

Derived from the French for “cameo,” a camaïeu is a monochrome work of art, particularly one in which the color used is not one found in whatever is being portrayed (like a black-and-white image of a bright green apple, or a blue-and-white portrait of a person). By extension, the term camaïeu can also be used metaphorically to refer to any dull or predictable literary work.

10. CAPRICORNIFY

Whereas goats themselves have long been considered symbols of lecherousness and libidinousness, goats’ horns are, for some reason, considered a symbol of unfaithfulness and infidelity. One explanation suggests that goats are such proverbially foolish animals that they’re utterly unaware that they even have horns at all—just as the partner of an unfaithful lover is utterly unaware of their other half’s infidelity. Another theory points to the celebratory “horns” given to Roman soldiers returning home from successes on far-flung battlefields—only to find that they’ve been away from home so long that their wives have left them and moved on. Whatever the reason behind it, the association between goats’ horns and unfaithfulness is the origin of the word capricornify, which means “to cheat on your lover,” or, oppositely, “to be cuckolded or cheated on.”

11. CATACHTHONIAN

The adjective chthonian is usually used to mean “pertaining to the Underworld,” but the derived term catachthonian, or catachthonic, is simply another word for “underground” or “subterranean.”

12. CATACUMBAL

If the room you’re in feels like a catacomb, then it’s catacumbal.

13. CATAPHASIS

Cataphasis—a Greek word literally meaning “affirmation”—is a rhetorical device in which someone draws attention to a person’s bad points by ostensibly glossing over them; unlike other rhetorical devices that do the same thing (known as paralipsis), in a cataphasis the speaker makes it abundantly clear that the bad points in question absolutely exist, as in “I’m not going to mention the fact that he got fired for misconduct yesterday …” or, “but let’s not start talking about how she capricornifies everyone she’s ever gone out with …” If you’re the person being alluded to in the cataphasis, of course, you might want to consider responding with a …

14. CATAPLEXIS

… which is another rhetorical term, referring to a speech or pronouncement in which someone threatens revenge.

15. CATCH-FART

So-named because they’re supposed to walk so closely behind the person they admire, a catch-fart is an ingratiating, toadying sycophant.

16. CATERWISE

Derived from the French number quatre, cater is a 16th century word for the four on a die or in a pack of cards. Derived from that, to cater means to walk or move along a diagonal path, while to position something caterwise or cater-cornered means to place it diagonally.

17. CHABBLE

The chabble is the slight undulation on the surface of the sea, or of a liquid in a large vessel.

18. CHATTER-WATER

An old Yorkshire dialect nickname for weak tea.

19. CHILIAD

The smaller and lesser-known partner of the word myriad is chiliad. So while a myriad is literally a group of 10,000, a chiliad is a group of 1000. A chiliagon, ultimately, is a shape with 1000 sides; a chiliarch is the leader of 1000 men; and a chiliarchy is a government or ruling body formed from 1000 individual members.

20. CHIONABLEPSIA

A medical name for snow-blindness, an affliction of the eyes caused by the reflection of sunlight on snow or ice.

21. CHUMBLE

A 19th century word meaning “to nibble” or “to gnaw.”

22. CIRCUMBENDIBUS

A 17th-century word for a circuitous, long-winded route or way of doing something.

23. CLAMIHEWIT

An 18th-century Scots dialect word for a bitter disappointment, or for a sound thrashing or beating. It’s thought to literally mean “claw-my-head” and oddly is unrelated to …

24. CLAMJAMPHRIE

… which is another old Scots dialect word variously used to mean “a rowdy crowd of people,” “worthless trivialities,” or “complete nonsense.” No one is quite sure where clamjamphrie comes from, but one theory claims that it might once have been a contemptuous nickname for a Highland clan.

25. CLIMB-TACK

Also called a climb-shelf, a climb-tack is a cat that likes to explore high shelves or hard-to-reach places. Metaphorically, it’s a naughty or mischievous child.

26. CLINOMANIA

Also known as dysania, clinomania is an obsessive desire to stay in bed or a total inability to get up in the morning. It’s etymologically related to …

27. CLINOPHOBIA

… which is the fear of going to bed. Other C-phobias include chromophobia (the fear of brightly-colored things), cheimaphobia (the cold), cryophobia (ice), cyberphobia (computers), cynophobia (dogs), and cneidophobia (insect stings).

28. COCKAPENTIE

Probably derived from cock-a-bendy, an old Scots word for an effeminate or priggish young man, a cockapentie is a man whose pride and shallowness compels him to live far beyond his means.

29. COLDBLOW

An old English dialect word for a freezing cold winter’s day. The wrong kind of day to be …

30. COLDRIFE

... If you’re coldrife then you’re susceptible to the cold, although the word can also be used figuratively to mean “spiritless” or “in need of cheering up.”

31. CORN-JUICE

19th century American slang for whisky.

32. COSP

The handle of a spade.

33. COTHROCH

An old dialect word (pronounced so that the roch part rhymes with loch) meaning “to work or cook in a disorganized or unsanitary manner.”

34. CRAFTY-SICK

Another Shakespearean invention, this time from Henry IV Part 2, meaning “pretending to be unwell.”

35. CREEPMOUSE

It mightn’t sound like it, but creepmouse was a 16th-century term of endearment, in particular for a young child or baby.

36. CROOCHIE-PROOCHLES

Probably a corruption of crooked and prickles, croochie-proochles is an old Scots dialect word for a feeling of discomfort that comes from sitting in a constricted, cramped position for too long.

37. CRUTLE

An old English dialect word meaning “to recover from a severe illness.”

38. CUCKOO-LAMB

As well as being another name for a late-season lamb, a cuckoo-lamb is a child born to older parents.

39. CUDDLE-ME-BUFF

An old Yorkshire word for alcohol, particularly when it’s been warmed or sweetened.

40. CULF

All those loose feathers and bits of fluff that come out of pillows and cushions? That’s the culf.

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