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.

13 Words That Changed From Negative to Positive Meanings (or Vice Versa)

grinvalds/iStock via Getty Images
grinvalds/iStock via Getty Images

One of the main reasons for the existence of slang is to keep the outsiders from understanding the insiders. Making up new words is one way to achieve this, but it’s not the only one. A favorite trick for the young to play on the old is to take an established word and completely change its connotations from bad to good. In recent decades we’ve seen sick, wicked, ill, and bad recruited to the “hearty positive endorsement” side. While some would lament the decline of language suggested by such wanton disregard for word meaning, this kind of meaning switch is nothing new. Here are 13 fine, upstanding words that long ago switched from negative to positive (or vice versa).

1. Fun

Fun was first a verb meaning "to cheat or hoax." It came from fon, an old word for "fool." It still retains some of that sense in “make fun of,” but now also means "a merry good time."

2. Fond

Fond also goes back to fon, and it once meant "foolish and weak-minded." It came to then mean over-affectionate in a negative, cloying way. Now it’s positive, but at root, being fond of something is basically being a fool for it.

3. Terrific

The root of terrific is terror, and it first meant terror-inducing. It then became an exaggerated intensifier (“terrifically good!” = so good it’s terrifying) and then a positive term all on its own.

4. Tremendous

Like terrific, tremendous has its roots in fear. Something tremendous was so terrible it caused trembling or shaking. It also became an intensifier (“tremendously good!”) before it went all the way positive.

5. Awe

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, awe originally referred to “immediate and active fear.” It then became associated with religious, reverential fear, and then to a feeling of being humbled at the sublime. While awful retains the negative sense, awesome took on the positive one.

6. Grin

To grin was to bare the teeth in a threatening display of anger or pain. It then became the term for a forced, fake smile, before settling into an expression of happiness.

7. Smart

Smart was first used in Old English to describe things that cause pain. Weapons, nails, and darts were smart. Shakespeare’s Henry VI has the phrase “as smart as lizards’ stings.” It took on connotations of sharpness, quickness, intensity, and, through smart, pain-causing words or wit came to stand for quick intelligence and fashionableness.

8. Egregious

Egregious was a positive word that turned negative. It used to mean "eminent and distinguished," but because people started using it sarcastically, it came to mean "bad and offensive."

9. Sad

Sad started with the meaning of "satisfied or sated," also sometimes "steadfast" or "firm." It then went from meaning "serious," to "grave," to "sorrowful."

10. Smug

Smug first meant "crisp, tidy, and presentable." A well-dressed person was smug in this way, and it later came to mean "self-satisfied and conceited."

11. Devious

Devious comes from de via, "off the way." It once meant "distant" or "off the road." It took on the meaning of wandering—there were devious comets, devious minnows—and, because to do wrong was to stray from the right path, it eventually came to mean "scheming and deceitful."

12. Facetious

To be facetious was once to have elegant, gracious, high style, and to be jokey and witty. It came from a Latin term for playful humorousness. It is still connected with a type of humor, but with an unproductive or annoying connotation.

13. Bully

Bully used to be a term of endearment for men or women. A bully could be a good friend or a sweetheart. It then came to stand for a swaggering braggart and than a coward who picks on others.

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

22 Weird Jobs From 100 Years Ago

Metal Floss via YouTube
Metal Floss via YouTube

Before everyone started working in tech, people actually had their choice of eclectic and strange vocations that put food on their old-timey tables. Discover what lamplighters, lectores, and knocker-uppers did back in the day as Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy runs down 22 Weird Old Jobs from 100 Years Ago.

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