My latest article for The Week looks at 10 words that are further evidence of the malicious character of English spelling. They look like they should be easy to pronounce, and many of us pronounce them as they look… but they’re really supposed to be pronounced quite differently:
10 words we’ve forgotten how to pronounce
Posted in The Week
Tagged blackguard, boatswain, bosun, clapboard, English spelling, fo'c'sle, forecastle, forehead, gooseberry, gunwale, spelling, spelling pronunciations, The Week, victual, vittle, waistcoat, Worcester
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.