–vv–

Perhaps because she was too savvy for the bovver of chivvying me with a bevvy, my friend Julie just straight-up asked if I would blog about words with double v’s. Naturally, the suggestion revved my mind up like a flivver.

Funny thing, though, the double v. It’s not the same as a w. In French, that letter – used only in borrowed words – is called “double v,” but of course in English it’s “double u.” The reason for this is that we had wbefore we had a distinction between and v. In Latin, which gave us the alphabet, there was originally only V, which was pronounced “w” as a consonant or “u” as a vowel. Over time it gained a second shape, U. When English started using the Latin alphabet, – also written – was used just for the vowel sound. The “w” sound was written with a letter we borrowed from the runes: ƿ. Looks like a p, doesn’t it? It was called wynn, but in the end it couldn’t win and was replaced with uu, also written vv and eventually w. And the sound “v”? Old English didn’t officially have it. It was just considered a version of the sound “f” in contexts such as between vowels – notice how we still do that with of. It was French influence that led to us treating “v” as a distinct sound and writing it with the same letter as “u,” as Medieval Latin (and French and Italian) did; it was only a few centuries later that we finally settled on using the shape always for the “v” sound and the “u” shape for the vowel (as did French and Italian, among others).

But because of history, while we typically double consonants to indicate things like stress and a preceding short vowel, we don’t usually do that with v. Words such as river and divide come to us from French, which doesn’t double consonants the same way. An originally English word such as given is a participle of give, which was giefan in Old English and was respelled with in place of in Middle English; ff would always have been said “f,” and vv would have been… w, of course. Seven comes from Old English seofan, which had an that was said “v” and subsequently written and not written vv because one meant one v, just as with given.

So. Let’s divvy up the vv words and bite in. Most of them are –vvy words: bevvybivvy, chavvy, chivvy, civvy, divvy, lavvyluvvy, mivvy, navvy, nevvy, savvy, skivvy. In general they’re comparatively new, and so they our modern sense of spelling rules applied: the short form of divide has to be divvy because divy would be another word, one describing a bar where you wouldn’t want to go to the lavvy (also known as the bivvy, from bivouac). Likewise, revved and revving are necessary to our eyes; combustion engines didn’t show up in time to go with the old single-ways.

Some of the others result from a phonological merger. Just as “v” split off from “f,” in some versions of English “v” and “f” have now merged with the voiced and voiceless forms of “th” respectively. So we get the sound-spellings bovverbruvver, and muvver.

Then there’s flivver, a word of unclear origin referring to a cheap car or airplane, which of course has a double just as the revving of its engine does. (Also, vv does seem to sound like the revving of an engine at least a little – va-va-voom! On the other hand, it looks like fangs.)

There’s sivvens, a name for “an infectious skin disease formerly prevalent in Scotland” (per the OED); the word was borrowed from Gaelic suibhean in the later 1700s, by which time was its own glyph and not just uu or vv (notice, by the way, that Gaelic borrowed the Latin alphabet before and split apart, and consequently had to represent its “v” sound with bh and, elsewhere, mh).

And then there’s evviva, which is a direct borrowing from Italian. Italian sometimes takes a pairing of an unstressed word and a stressed word in a common saying and tacks them together, doubling the first consonant of the stressed word as it does so: addio (‘goodbye’) from a Dio, oddio (‘OMG’) from o Dio (and importantly distinguished from odio, which means ‘I hate’), davvero (‘really’) from da vero, and evviva from e viva, which means ‘and live’ and is typically followed by something like il re (‘the king’). So, as borrowed into English, evviva is a noun referring to a cheer for some prominent person or “a shout of applause” (OED).

So, bruvvers and muvvers, let’s lift a bevvy and shout an evviva for the double v!

One response to “–vv–

  1. Chips Mackinolty

    And the Italian, at least in religious contexts, does a double v in curious fashion. You will often see, on a santuario or edicole votive, the two Vs are pushed together, overlapping each other to form something that looks like a W. It connotes Viva! (long live), as in “VV Santa Rosalia”

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