Daily Archives: June 8, 2009


When Terry Brooks came out with his book The Scions of Shannara, an installment in his popular Shannara series of fantasy books (not scions fiction!), he really put a cat among the pigeons as far as the pronunciation abilities of fourteen-year-old boys was concerned. I was working in a bookstore at the time, and it was not so common to hear the word scions pronounced correctly by those seeking the book – as though Brooks had blinded them with scions. It seems the rule most anglophones adhere to is “If it looks unfamiliar, it must not be pronounced like familiar words.” So the model of science just didn’t do it. “Skee-ons” was more common, in spite of the fact that [sk] for sc before e or i in English is, as linguists would say, strongly marked (marked is here a polite way of saying odd or weird). Oh well, sigh on, you erudite ones. At least those young men carbuncular had more coins in the piggy bank of their vocabulary, added by one of the icons of fantasy. I wonder what they expected scion to mean before they found out. Something like a scythe or scissors? It does have a knife-like quality, with the steel-hissing [s] at the start written with that slicing pair sc. On the other hand, the shape of the word suggests a sword or a candle (i) set among stones. But what is really rising up in this word’s referent is a shoot, a twig, a graft, an off-spring… or, in the more current metaphor, an offspring, in particular an heir. All things that could be cut off with a sharp shaft of steel.

What’s up with English spelling?

Presented at the 30th annual Editors’ Association of Canada conference, Toronto, June 6, 2009

Handout: Why is it spelled that way? A ghotiun expedition (PDF, 156 KB)

Last week, the annual Scripps Spelling Bee was held. Everyone was so impressed at how smart these kids were, at how they could spell all these words.

Remember that song, A-B-C, easy as 1-2-3…? So what the heck is so easy about ABC, at least in English? It gets to be like a bad marriage. Or a boxing match. Continue reading