Why is English Spelling So Messed Up?


If you're a kid learning how to write, or an adult speaker of a language with sensible spelling, English spelling can seem like a cruel prank. And even if you're a completely literate adult native speaker of English, you will still run into situations that make you wonder how English spelling ever got so messed up. Here are some answers for the next time you clutch your hair yelling, "WHYYYYYYYY?!?!?" They may not comfort you, but they may make you see English as less of an arbitrary meanie and more of a victim of history.

1. Spelling was established while big pronunciation changes were underway

Before the printing press came along, there was a lot of flexibility in English spelling. Look at some of the ways beauty used to be spelled: bealte, buute, beuaute, bewtee, bewte, beaute, beaultye. People did their own thing, trying their best to match up tradition with current pronunciation. But after the printing press came to England in the late 1400s, texts could be spread more widely, and printers started to standardize spelling. The unlucky thing for English spelling is that during the very same time, huge changes in pronunciation were happening. Middle English was becoming Modern English. When this period was over people had stopped pronouncing thek in knee, the g in gnaw, the w in write, the l in talk, and the b in lamb. They had also stopped using the back-of-the-throat-sound (represented by the ch in German words like ach!) that had been spelled by scribes with gh and had been pronounced in words like nightlaughthought, and eight. But by the time all those sound changes were widespread and complete, the spellings for those words had been established.

There was also a massive change to the vowel system during that period. This change is called the Great Vowel Shift, and by the time it was over we had settled on spellings that reflected a mix of the old system and the new. So we get one spelling for many vowel sounds—ea in knead, bread, wear, and great—and multiple spellings for one vowel sound—due and dewso and sew.

2. The literate class used French until the 15th century

When the Normans invaded England in 1066, they brought their own words with them. While the general population carried on speaking English, French was used in universities and the courts, eventually leaving its imprint on the whole of English vocabulary. Most French words from this period were adapted to English pronunciation and spelling (attend, blame, enchant, flower, farm, join, lesson, minister, proof, etc.), but plenty retain traces of their origin that cause little spelling headaches today: people, jeopardy, muscle, marriage, autumn.

3. It was cool to change spellings during the classical craze 

In the 16th and 17th centuries, a craze for the ideas and artifacts of antiquity caused some writers to introduce spellings for English words based on Latin and Greek, even when those words had never been pronounced according to those spellings. They thought it looked more educated and fancy to write February; (on analogy with Latin Februarius) rather than Feverere, and receipt (like Latin receptum) rather than receyt. This is also how debt and doubt got their b, salmon and solder got their l, and indict got its c.

The re-Latinized words did have a very distant connection, through French, with the Latin words they were based on, even though they were borrowed into English without the extra sounds. But sometimes re-Latinizing introduced letters that had no business being there on any etymological grounds. That s in island, for example, never had any reason to be there. The word came from Old English íglund, and was spelled illond, ylonde, or ilande until some fancy-pants picked up the s from Latin insula and stuck it in and made the word more complicated than it had to be.

Other scholars complicated perfectly clear words by making them look more Greek. So asma,diaria, and fleme became asthma, diarrhea, and phlegm. Don't they look classier that way?

4. We let words keep their spellings when we borrow them

As we discussed in No. 2, English got a lot of words from French after the invasion of 1066. Around 700 years later, we willingly borrowed a whole slew of other words from French, many of them referring to the finer things in life. We let them keep their spellings, but we pronounced them our own way, so now we've got words like bouillon, casserole, vinaigretteprotégé, ballet, bouquet, boutique, silhouette, etiquette, faux pas, champagne, and hors d'oeuvres.

Of course, French isn't the only language we've borrowed from. When we see something we've got use for, we take it as is. Guerrilla, piñata, llama, angst, kitsch, fjord, Czech, gnocchi, and zucchini have been welcomed into the fold. It's the least English can do, as it spreads around the globe: Let the globe spread into English as well.

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Big Questions
How Does One Become A Knight?
Sir Francis Chichester is knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1967.
Sir Francis Chichester is knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1967.
Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

What does it really mean to become a knight? Do you get a sword and a squire to boss around? Inquiring minds want to know, so we did a bit of research. Here are the answers to some of your most pressing knighthood-related questions.


Since 1917, the British government has been awarding notable citizens with spots in the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, which just recently welcomed Beatle Ringo Starr into its ranks. Although the Order, which was established by King George V, was originally meant to honor top-notch civilian and military behavior in wartime, it quickly expanded to include peacetime achievements as well.

The Order has five separate ranks: Knight and Dame Grand Cross (GBE), Knight and Dame Commander (KBE and DBE, respectively), Commander (CBE), Officer (OBE), and Member (MBE). Achieving one of the first two ranks earns a person a slot in the knighthood, which means they can add "Sir" or "Dame" to their names, i.e. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Dame Judi Dench. All members of the Order of the British Empire can add the initials of their rank to the end of their names, though, which is why you sometimes read about celebrities with ranks following their names, like "Roger Daltrey CBE."


Sort of. Notable non-Brits are only eligible for honorary knighthood, meaning they aren’t allowed to add “Sir” or "Dame" to their names. They do, however get to append the suffix “KBE” to their monikers if they so desire. Bono, Bill Gates, Steven Spielberg, and Michael Bloomberg are all technically “KBEs.” If any of them later become citizens of the realm, the honor is usually made substantive and they are “bumped up” into real knighthood. In 2005, Irish-born BBC personality Terry Wogan received an honorary knighthood, and when he became a British citizen later that year, he could start making people call him Sir Terry Wogan.


Technically, the reigning monarch is the sovereign of the Order and is in charge of making all appointments. On a more practical level, though, the monarch receives counsel and recommendations from the Secretary of State for Defence and the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs.

Lieutenant General Sir Oliver Leese (1894 - 1978) of the British Army receives a knighthood from King George VI, during the King's visit with the Eighth Army in Italy, 26th July 1944
Lieutenant General Sir Oliver Leese of the British Army receives a knighthood from King George VI, during the King's visit with the Eighth Army in Italy in 1944.
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Membership in the Order of the British Empire is available for all sorts of reasons, from superlative civil or military service to artistic achievement to charity work.


While lots of notable figures are offered the honor of joining the Order of the British Empire, only a few heavy-hitters get to become knights and dames commander. Simply put, these higher honors go to the bigger names. For example, current Dames Commander include Judi Dench, Jane Goodall, and Helen Mirren. Generally, it's a good idea to make a pretty substantial service and cultural contribution to the British realm.

A few members of the Order of the British Empire aren't technically knights within the organization's hierarchy, but they're allowed to call themselves "Sir." These guys have been knighted by the monarchy, but not as part of an order of chivalry like the Order of the British Empire. They can call themselves "Sir," but don’t have any additional letters added to their names. Elton John, Paul McCartney, and some other famous "Sirs" have this type of knighthood.


Nope. In fact, a number of people have turned down the honor due to uneasiness with its militaristic or imperialist overtones. According to an AP story, approximately two percent of the 3000 or so people offered spots in the Order each year decline them.

A photo of David Bowie circa 1970
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

David Bowie supposedly twice declined offers to join, including an offer of knighthood in 2003, because he felt the whole business was a waste of time. John Cleese rejected a CBE and said he felt much more honored when a Swiss zoologist named a lemur after him in 2005. Vanessa Redgrave became a Commander of the British Empire in 1967, but she turned down an offer of damehood in 1999. When asked about the decision to just say no in 2002, Redgrave told The Independent, "My difficulty is in receiving anything that says British Empire, because I am a Unicef special representative at the service of children from any country. If there were no mention of the British Empire, I would be as honored as anybody. If I were asked to be a baroness, for example, I would see that in a different light."

Keith Richards turned down a spot as Commander of the British Empire and viciously mocked bandmate Mick Jagger for taking a knighthood, which he called a "f***ing paltry honour."

Generally, when a person declines an honor, they don't crow to the media about it. Rather, they discreetly tell the tale after some time has passed.


You don't get to joust or wear armor, but you do pick up a few unusual garments. Knights and Dames Grand Cross get to wear special gear to formal events like coronations. This getup includes a pink-with-gray-edges satin mantle and a collar of six gold medallions.

 Queen Elizabeth II shakes hands after knighting Sir Rodney Williams upon his appointment as Governor-General of Antigua and Barbuda during an audience at Windsor Castle on December 5, 2014 in Windsor, United Kingdom
Queen Elizabeth II shakes hands after knighting Sir Rodney Williams in 2014.
Jonathan Brady, WPA Pool/Getty Images

All members of the Order are allowed to wear the group's badge. The badge is basically a cross hanging from a pink ribbon with gray edges, although various ranks wear their badges in unique ways. Members and Officers simply wear their badges like military medals pinned to their chests, while higher-ups wear theirs on sashes or around their necks.

Other benefits include getting a spot in the British order of precedence, the arcane system that develops the hierarchy of ceremonial importance for things like state dinners. Furthermore, knights win their wives the right to be called "Lady," and Knights and Dames Grand Cross can modify their coats of arms to reflect the honor.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at

An earlier version of this post originally appeared in 2009.

Big Questions
Why Do Onions Make You Cry?

The onion has been traced back as far as the Bronze Age and was worshipped by the Ancient Egyptians (and eaten by the Israelites during their bondage in Egypt). Onions were rubbed over the muscles of Roman gladiators, used to pay rent in the Middle Ages, and eventually brought to the Americas, where today we fry, caramelize, pickle, grill, and generally enjoy them.

Many of us burst into tears when we cut into one, too. It's the price we pay for onion-y goodness. Here's a play-by-play breakdown of how we go from grabbing a knife to crying like a baby:

1. When you cut into an onion, its ruptured cells release all sorts of goodies, like allinase enzymes and amino acid sulfoxides. The former breaks the latter down into sulfenic acids.

2. The sulfenic acids, unstable bunch that they are, spontaneously rearrange into thiosulfinates, which produce a pungent odor and at one time got the blame for our tears. The acids are also converted by the LF-synthase enzyme into a gas called syn-propanethial-S-oxide, also known as the lachrymatory factor (or the crying factor).

3. Syn-propanethial-S-oxide moves through the air and reaches our eyes. The first part of the eye it meets, the cornea, is populated by autonomic motor fibers that lead to the lachrymal glands. When syn-propanethial-S-oxide is detected, all the fibers in the cornea start firing and tell the lachrymal glands to wash the irritant away.

4. Our eyes automatically start blinking and producing tears, which flushes the irritant away. Of course, our reaction to burning eyes is often to rub them, which only makes things worse since our hands also have some syn-propanethial-S-oxide on them.

It only takes about 30 seconds to start crying after you make the first cut; that's the time needed for syn-propanethial-S-oxide formation to peak.


The onion's relatives, like green onions, shallots, leeks and garlic, also produce sulfenic acids when cut, but they generally have fewer (or no) LF-synthase enzymes and don't produce syn-propanethial-S-oxide.


Since I usually go through a good deal of onions while cooking at home, I've been road testing some of the different methods the internet suggests for reducing or avoiding the effects of the lachrymatory factor. Here's what I tried:

Method #1: Chill or slightly freeze the onions before cutting, the idea being that this will change the chemical reactions and reduce the gas that is released.
Result: The onion from the fridge has me crying just as quickly as room temperature ones. The one that was in a freezer for 30 minutes leaves me dry-eyed for a bit, but by the time I'm done dicing my eyes start to burn a little.

Method #2: Cut fast! Get the chopping over with before the gas reaches your eyes.
Result: Just hacking away at the onion, I get in the frying pan without so much as a sting in my eyes. The onion looks awful, though. Doing a proper dice, I take a little too long and start tearing up. If you don't mind a mangled onion, this is the way to go.

Method #3: Put a slice of bread in your mouth, and cut the onion with most of the bread sticking out to "catch" the fumes.
Result: It seems the loaf of bread I have has gone stale. I stop the experiment and put bread on my shopping list.

Method #4: Chew gum while chopping. It keeps you breathing through your mouth, which keeps the fumes away from your eyes.
Result: This seems to work pretty well as long as you hold your head in the right position. Leaning toward the cutting board or looking right down at the onion puts your eyes right in the line of fire again.

Method #5: Cut the onions under running water. This prevents the gas from traveling up into the eyes.
Result: An onion in the sink is a hard onion to cut. I think Confucius said that. My leaky Brita filter is spraying me in the face and I'm terrified I'm going to cut myself, but I'm certainly not crying.

Method #6: Wear goggles.
Result: In an effort to maintain my dignity, I try my eyeglasses and sunglasses first. Neither do me any good. The ol' chemistry lab safety glasses make me look silly, but help a little more. I imagine swim goggles would really do the trick, but I don't have any.

Method #7: Change your onion. "Tear free" onions have been developed in the UK via special breeding and in New Zealand via "gene silencing" techniques.
Result: My nearest grocery store, Whole Foods, doesn't sell genetically modified produce or onions from England. Tonight, we eat leeks!

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