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.

New Harry Potter Scrabble Accepts Wizarding Words Like Hogwarts and Dobby

USAopoly
USAopoly

Patronus, Hogwarts, and Dobby may not be words found in the official Scrabble dictionary, but they are very real to Harry Potter fans. Now there's finally a board game that lets players win points using the magical vocabulary made famous by the Harry Potter books and movies. SCRABBLE: World of Harry Potter from USAopoly is a new edition of Scrabble that recognizes characters, place names, spells, and potions from J.K. Rowling's Wizarding World.

Like traditional Scrabble, players use the letter tiles they pick up to spell out words on the board, with different words earning different point values. Any word you can find in an up-to-date Merriam-Webster Dictionary is still fair game, but in this version, terms coined in Harry Potter qualify as well. First and last names, whether they belong to characters (Albus or Dumbledore, for example) or actors from the franchise (Emma or Watson), are playable. You can also spell magical place names (like Hogsmeade), spells (accio), and objects (snitch).

Harry Potter version of Scrabble.
USAopoly

Showing off the depth of your Harry Potter knowledge isn't the only reason to put wizarding words on the board. Magical words are worth bonus points, with players earning more points the longer the word is. SCRABBLE: World of Harry Potter also includes cards with special challenges for players—a feature that can't be found in any other version of the game.

This Harry Potter edition of Scrabble will be available for $30 at Barnes & Noble and other retailers this spring. Until then, there are plenty of Harry Potter-themed games, including wizarding chess, out there for you to play.

Harry Potter version of Scrabble.
USAopoly

Presidents Day vs. President's Day vs. Presidents' Day: Which One Is It?

iStock
iStock

Happy Presidents’ Day! Or is it President’s Day? Or Presidents Day? What you call the national holiday depends on where you are, who you’re honoring, and how you think we’re celebrating.

Saying "President’s Day" implies that the day belongs to a singular president, such as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, whose birthdays are the basis for the holiday. On the other hand, referring to it as "Presidents’ Day" means that the day belongs to all of the presidents—that it’s their day collectively. Finally, calling the day "Presidents Day"—plural with no apostrophe—would indicate that we’re honoring all POTUSes past and present (yes, even Andrew Johnson), but that no one president actually owns the day.

You would think that in the 140 years since "Washington’s Birthday" was declared a holiday in 1879, someone would have officially declared a way to spell the day. But in fact, even the White House itself hasn’t chosen a single variation for its style guide. They spelled it “President’s Day” here and “Presidents’ Day” here.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Maybe that indecision comes from the fact that Presidents Day isn’t even a federal holiday. The federal holiday is technically still called “Washington’s Birthday,” and states can choose to call it whatever they want. Some states, like Iowa, don’t officially acknowledge the day at all. And the location of the punctuation mark is a moot point when individual states choose to call it something else entirely, like “George Washington’s Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day” in Arkansas, or “Birthdays of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson” in Alabama. (Alabama loves to split birthday celebrations, by the way; the third Monday in January celebrates both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert E. Lee.)

You can look to official grammar sources to declare the right way, but even they don’t agree. The AP Stylebook prefers “Presidents Day,” while Chicago Style uses “Presidents’ Day.”

The bottom line: There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it. Go with what feels right. And even then, if you’re in one of those states that has chosen to spell it “President’s Day”—Washington, for example—and you use one of the grammar book stylings instead, you’re still technically wrong.

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