Tag Archives: victuals

Don’t be misled or go awry

My latest article for The Week is about book words – words you’ve learned from a book without learning the pronunciation. We’ve all had them, and there’s no shame in it:

Don’t be misled or go awry with ‘book words’

And here’s my companion pronunciation tip video (also embedded in the article):

Pronunciation tip: waistcoat, boatswain, gunwale, victuals, forecastle, blackguard, topgallant sail

Shanties are the thing just now, so I thought I’d take the occasion to use one for a pronunciation tip on some words that have undergone sea changes between spelling and pronunciation. Here it is:

And here are the words:

Oh, I was a sailor without a mess kit
waistcoat, boatswain, gunwale, victuals
I came aboard in a top hat and waistcoat
forecastle, blackguard, topgallant sail, hey!

They stripped me down, I was half frozen
waistcoat, boatswain, gunwale, victuals
Got fifteen lashes from a surly boatswain 
forecastle, blackguard, topgallant sail, hey!

There’s many a sight in land and sea to cause good people consternation
But the cursedest thing that ever be is English spelling and pronunciation

I said where’s me grog, they gave me a funnel
waistcoat, boatswain, gunwale, victuals
Till I emptied me guts hanging off a gunwale 
forecastle, blackguard, topgallant sail, hey!

I’m a man of letters, jots and tittles,
waistcoat, boatswain, gunwale, victuals
But I nearly died from the lack of victuals 
forecastle, blackguard, topgallant sail, hey!

You think it’s funny; I tell you, jokes’ll
waistcoat, boatswain, gunwale, victuals
Fall damn flat lashed down to the forecastle 
forecastle, blackguard, topgallant sail, hey!

There’s many a thing that tries your hand in ocean and geography
But you will never understand phonemics and orthography

They all called me weak, they called me a laggard
waistcoat, boatswain, gunwale, victuals
I’ll never forgive the captain, that blackguard 
forecastle, blackguard, topgallant sail, hey!

Taking to sea in search of yarns’ll
waistcoat, boatswain, gunwale, victuals
End with you hanging up by the topgallant sail 
forecastle, blackguard, topgallant sail, hey!

Oh, I have faced the worstest riddles that mind and tongue will ever say:
waistcoat, boatswain, gunwale, victuals, forecastle, blackguard, topgallant sail, hey!


OK, this is one that makes my vittles a little tender. I mean makes my victuals a lictual tender. I mean…

Here’s the thing. This is one of those words that many people know by sound and sight but have not put sound and sight together. It’s sort of like knowing someone by name (from the web, perhaps) and knowing someone by face (circle of friends, or they work in a store you go to, or…), but not realizing the two are the same person. Until you accidentally find out, and it’s usually embarrassing.

You may well display ignorance by saying this word as it’s spelled. But on the other hand, not too many people would belictual you for spelling this word as it’s said: vittle (or vittles, since it’s nearly always plural). Grammar grumblers are of course more brictual than the average person, but even they seldom spewed much spictual onto the brand name Tender Vittles (off the market in 2007 anyway – it was kind of like skictuals for kictuies). And why would you spell a cat food victuals when so many people think the word is vittle and when victual looks a bit too much like victim (and convict and evict, and actually a bit like ritual too)? Tell the truth: doesn’t it seem just a little precious to spell it victual while saying it “vittle”?

But then, why would you spell this word victual? Or why would you pronounce victual like “vittle”? Ah, food for thought (as opposed to food for the belly, which is what victuals are). Let’s take an intellettle look at the attle fattle historical details.

The original late Latin word was victualia, from victus ‘food’. That got whictualed down in pronunciation and spelling to Old French victaille and vitaille. English borrowed that, at first keeping the spelling and then modifying it variously (by the way, vital is from a different Latin root). But in the 1500s and 1600s there came to be quite the fad for changing spelling to reflect the glorious Latin origins of words: faucon became falcon because of falx; ile became isle because of insula; peple became people because of populus; and vitaile (among other spellings, all said as we say it now) became victual because of victualia.

So… what happened, in short, is that the word aged as words do, and then it got a face-lift, so to speak, to restore it to something like its older form. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is one of the big reasons English spelling doesn’t match English pronunciation: those meddling jerks a half millennium ago who thought that spelling should display etymology rather than matching pronunciation. And that is what gets my goat – and tenderizes my victuals too.

Thanks to Hal Davis for prompting me to do this one.