nuisance

Say you’re driving along a word – sorry, I mean a road – and all of a sudden there’s a stop sign or a stop light you didn’t expect. “Hm!” You say. “That’s new since I was last through here! …What a nuisance!”

Well, now, driving through this word, nuisance, there’s also a stop sign in the middle, though it’s not a new one: right after the u, which you pronounce, there’s this i which you sail right through (without getting a ticket). For many speakers of English, it may seem that the i and u are reversed, because there’s a glide into the vowel ([nju]); for Canadian speakers generally, it’s just [nu] and the vowel is tout nu without any glide on or off. Quel nuisance!

So why’s the i there? I’m tempted to say it just seems to suit it. But that line would not be fruitful. In fact, we have a small suite of words that have this ui, and they’re not like that just to keep the i off U.I. In fact, they all come from French. But, ah, it would be too easy if it were just a French [wi] being reinterpreted as an [u] or [ju] in English without changing the spelling.

Fruit comes from Latin fructus by way of Old French fruit, but the English spelling originally tended to leave out the i; it might equally keep the c instead. The i seems to have been reintroduced.

Suit, for its part, traces back originally to popular Latin sequita, and showed up in English in the 13th century as siwte and then by the 15th century generally as sute. But we also see soyt and soyte in 16th-century use. Our modern suite was originally the same word and split off only about four centuries ago. In all this there was doubtlessly also cross-influence from French; when French came to have it as suite, hey presto, guess what we had in English.

But then we come to nuisance. It seems straightforward by comparison. Its source is Anglo-Norman French: nuisance. It showed up in 15th-century English as nusance, indicating a loss already of the glide; but then within a century we see nuysance. And newsance also appears. It reverted to the spelling nuisance probably with an eye to etymology (there was a vogue for a time in English for etymological respellings, so people could see where their words come from – this gave us assorted silent letters, such as in doubt and debt and falcon – well, the l is no longer silent).  But here’s the good part: In French, the word nuisance fell out of general use between the 17th and mid-20th centuries; the modern French use is most likely influenced by the English usage. Turnabout is fair play, eh!

But of course we say it one way and the French say it another. To English ears, the French [nwizãs] may almost seem charming (because it sounds so French), and it has that “yes”-sounding [wi] (as in oui) in the middle and a [z] to balance the [s]. The English version [nusIns], by contrast, reminds us of noose, while [njusIns] and [nIwsIns] might have a taste of no use, and the consonants are [n], [s], [n], [s], all noses and hisses. We may note a similar difference in sound between the cognate pair French ennuyer and English annoy – and the English word is irritated, while the French one is simply bored.

Well, etymology and spelling can be a nuisance. But a fascinating one.

One response to “nuisance

  1. There are people in Canada who say ‘noo-sance’? How horrible. It would never occur to me to do so. Bleah.

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