5 Words That Are Spelled Weird Because Someone Got the Etymology Wrong

iStock.com/fotosipsak
iStock.com/fotosipsak

English spelling is complicated, but it has its reasons for being that way. Borrowing from other languages, pronunciation changes over time, and peculiarities in the evolution of printing standards all played a role in getting us to where we are today. The way a word is spelled tells a part of its history. But for a few words, the spelling gets the history totally wrong.

In the early days of printing, spelling varied a lot. As a standard began to develop in the 16th century, a fashion for all things classical led some people to look to Latin and Greek for spelling inspiration. So, for example, the word debt, which had been spelled dette ever since it had been borrowed from French that way, was gussied up with a silent b, the better to show its ultimate derivation from Latin debitum.

Many words were affected by this add-a-silent-letter trend. The changes, though fussy and unnecessary, did reflect distant historical roots. But sometimes, they didn’t. Here are five weird spellings that came about through etymological mistakes.

1. Scissors

We used to spell scissors sissors or sizars. Where did that sc come from? The classicizers of the 1500s thought the word went back to Latin scindere, to split, but it actually came to us (via French) from cisorium, “cutting implement.” The same assumption turned sithe into scythe.

2. Island

An unnecessary s was bestowed on iland in order to make clearer the link to Latin insula. Only island didn't come from insula, but from the Old English íglund.

3. Ache

Ache is from the Old English verb acan. There was a related noun atche (other such pairs include speak/speech, break/breach, wake/watch). The spelling settled on ache under the mistaken belief that is was related to the Greek akhos (grief, pain).

4. Could

In Old English the past tense of can did not have an l in it, but should and would (as past tenses of shall and will) did. The l was stuck into could in the 15th century on analogy with the other two.

5. Sovereign

When English borrowed soverain from French it had no g. The word was formed after Latin superanus, “highest one” (from super, “above”). The word reign, however, coming from Latin regnare, did have a g in it, and it very easily made its way into sovereign.

Arika Okrent is a linguist and author of the book In the Land of Invented Languages. She lives in Chicago.

This piece originally ran in 2014.

When Are the Dog Days of Summer?

Dorottya_Mathe/iStock via Getty Images
Dorottya_Mathe/iStock via Getty Images

The official “dog days” of summer begin on July 3 and end on August 11. So how did this time frame earn its canine nickname? It turns out the phrase has nothing to do with the poor pooches who are forever seeking shade in the July heat, and everything to do with the nighttime sky.

Sirius, the Dog Star, is the brightest star in the sky. The ancient Greeks noticed that in the summer months, Sirius rose and set with the Sun, and they theorized that it was the bright, glowing Dog Star that was adding extra heat to the Earth in July and August.

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15 Pairs of Words That Surprisingly Come From the Same Source

Both flour and flower come from the same root word
Both flour and flower come from the same root word
Lena_Zajchikova/iStock via Getty Images

We take for granted that many English words have counterparts that sound related, but aren’t. Even though know and no sound the same, their meanings are so different we assume they have different etymological sources (which the spelling differences also suggest). However, sometimes words we might not expect to have anything in common historically do in fact go back to the same source. They’re called etymological doublets; here are 15 of them.

1. Flour/Flower

Flour, just like flower, came from French fleur. It was named that way because the part of the plant used to make it was considered the “flower of the grain,” the best part of it, taking away all the chaff and other impurities.

2. Lobster/Locust

Both go back to Latin locusta, for locust, which also turned into the French langouste and Old English lopustre. The lobster is the locust of the sea.

3. Inch/Ounce

Though one measures length and the other weight, they both go back to Latin uncia, meaning a twelfth part. The original ounce was 1/12th of a pound.

4. Of/Off

Of and off were once the exact same word but in a stressed vs. unstressed pronunciation. It wasn’t until the 17th century that they developed different uses to the point where they were considered different words.

5. Etiquette/Ticket

Etiquette was a French word for a note attached to something that listed its contents. It was borrowed into English as ticket and into Spanish as etiqueta, where it came to be associated with the listed rules of protocol for the Spanish royal court. It then came back into French and English with the social protocol meaning.

6. Costume/Custom

Both come from Latin consuetudinem, meaning "accustomed to," or "habituated." Both referred to the general habits of a group, including how they dress, among other things. Costume wasn’t explicitly connected to just the dress sense until the 1800s.

7. Species/Spices

Both come from Latin specie, for "appearance" or "form." Spice came into English first, from Old French espice. Species was later borrowed directly from Latin.

8. Reward/Regard

In Anglo-Norman, reward and regard were alternate pronunciations of the same thing. While the g version took on the senses of "to look at," "give attention to," and also "to merit, esteem, or respect," the w version settled into the current sense of giving something on merit.

9. Dainty/Dignity

The Latin word dignus meant "worthy." While dignity refers to a sense of "worthy" that includes serious notions of honor, respect, and rank, in dainty, dignus lives on in the sense of being worthy for being delightful, precious, and pleasing.

10. Naïve/Native

Both come from Latin nativus, meaning innate, natural. Naïve is "natural" in the sense of being unspoiled and native is an innate belonging to an origin.

11. Shirt/Skirt

The ancestor of the Old English scyrte developed into a word for the upper part of an undergarment in many Germanic languages, but it’s not entirely clear how it also developed into the skirt word for a lower garment in English.

12. Tradition/Treason

Tradition is from the Latin tradere, for the act of handing over or handing down. Treason also comes from tradere, with the sense of handing over or delivering. The tray in betray also goes back to this sense of tradere.

13. Tulip/Turban

Both are approximations of the Persian word for turban, dulband, which a tulip was said to resemble.

14. Maneuver/Manure

Maneuver comes from the Latin manu + operari, to work by hand. But so does manure, which was originally a verb meaning to "till the land."

15. Grammar/Glamour

Grammar goes all the way back to Latin and Greek, where it referred to all aspects of the study of literature. In the Middle Ages, it came to be associated with just the linguistic parts, and particularly with the study of Latin. The fancy, educated class studied Latin, and also things like magic and astrology, so the word grammar sometimes referred to that aspect too. A mispronounced version, glamour, went on to stand for the magical, enchanting quality we use it for today.

This list was first published in 2015 and republished in 2019.

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