11 Weirdly Spelled Words—And How They Got That Way

iStock
iStock

Why is English spelling so messed up? We get the same sounds spelled different ways (two, to, too), the same spellings pronounced different ways (chrome, machine, attach), and extra letters all over the place that don't even do anything (knee, gnu, pneumatic). There aren't always good reasons for these inconsistencies, but there are reasons. Here's a brief look at the history of English spelling told through 11 words.

1. THOUGHT

Way back in the 600s, Christian missionaries arrived in Anglo-Saxon England with their Roman alphabet and tried to make it fit the language they found there. They had to come up with ways to spell sounds like 'th' and /x/—a back of the throat consonant like the one in German "ach!" For a while they made use of runic characters (þ,?, ð) and various combinations of g, c, and h. Scribes eventually settled on 'th' and 'gh'. Some of the spellings "thought" has gone through include: þoht, ðoght, þou?te, thowgth, thouch, thotht, thoughte, and thowcht.

Later, English lost the /x/ sound, but only after the spelling conventions had been well established. Today, whenever you see one of those 'gh' spellings, say a little "ach!" in the memory of English /x/.

2. KNEAD

Two things happened in the early 1500s that really messed with English spelling. First, the new technology of the printing press meant publishers—rather than scribes—were in charge, and they started to standardize spelling. At the very same time, the Great Vowel Shift was underway. People were changing the way they pronounced vowels in vast groups of words, but the publishers weren't recognizing the changes yet. This is why we ended up with so much inconsistency: 'ea' sounds different in knead, bread, wear and great. Along with the vowel changes, English lost the /k/ sound from /kn/ words, the /w/ from /wr/ words, and the /g/ from gnat and gnaw. But by the time the change was complete, the writing habits had already been established.

3. WEDNESDAY

Woden was an Anglo-Saxon god associated with both fury and poetic inspiration. He also had a career in curing horses and carrying off the dead, and Wednesday is his day. Woden's day has gone through various spellings—wodnesdaeg, Weodnesdei, Wenysday, wonysday, Weddinsday—but even though Shakespeare tried to match pronunciation with his very reasonable "Wensday," it didn't stick. Woden got to keep his 'd' and his day.

4. JEOPARDY

The Romans helped get the Anglo-Saxon language into writing, but when the French arrived with William the Conqueror in 1066, they brought their own words with them. English vocabulary was never the same again. One of the expressions they brought was iu parti (jeu parti, "divided game") which became Iupartye, ieoperde, and yeopardie before settling into its current form. The 'eo' reflects the gist of the original French vowel (as it does in "people") and the location of the 'r' was already fixed in the spelling by the time it wandered over next to the 'p' in pronunciation. The roaming habits of the 'r' have gotten a lot of word spellings into trouble. See: different, temperate, separate.

5. FEBRUARY

Those sneaky 'r's also like to disappear completely, especially when there are two of them near each other (see: surprise, berserk, governor). February also came into English from French. The French feverier first became English feverere, or feverell. But in the 16th and 17th centuries, a craze for all things classical caused writers to start re-Latinizing their spelling—making words look more like their ancient language sources, whatever their current pronunciation. It was a way to make your documents look more intelligent and fancy. And so, in writing, they made February look more like Februarius.

6. RECEIPT

Receipt is also a victim of the Latinizing craze. When the word came into English from French it had no 'p', and no one pronounced it as if it did. Enthusiastic Latinizers later added the 'p' on analogy with the Latin receptus. This is also how debt and doubt got their 'b's, salmon and solder got their 'l's, and indict got its 'c.'

7. ISLAND

Most of the words that got Latinized did have some distant connection, through French, with the ancient Latin words that dictated their new spellings. However, sometimes a Latin-inspired letter got stuck into a word that hadn't even come through Latin. "Island" came from the Old English íglund, and was spelled illond, ylonde, or ilande until someone picked up the 's' from Latin insula and stuck it where it had never been meant to be.

8. ASTHMA

In addition to re-Latinizing, there was Greekification (not a technical term!). Asthma first showed up as asma or asmyes. But words associated with science and medicine were particularly susceptible to the urge to connect to the classics, so people started writing asthma instead of asma, diarrhea instead of diaria, phlegm instead of fleme…ok, I'll stop.

9. COLONEL

From the very beginning, when this word came into English in the 1500s, there were two spelling variants and two pronunciations. Coronel came through French and colonel through Italian. Colonel preserved the look of the related word "column," but coronel brought a nice, regal "crown" to mind (though it wasn't actually etymologically related). So it went back and forth until we settled into the 'l' spelling with the 'r' pronunciation. Yay compromise?

10. HORS D'OEUVRES

Another wave of French words came into English starting around 1700. They came from the high life, fashion, courtly manners, cuisine, and the arts. We got words like bouillon, casserole, vinaigrette, protégé, ballet, bouquet, boutique, silhouette, etiquette, and faux pas. These words have kept their French spellings, and we get as close as we can to their pronunciations. "Orderves" isn't bad for hors d'oeuvres. It's better than "horse dovers," in any case.

11. ZUCCHINI

That's how you spell it, and say it, in Italian. It's just one of the many words we've snatched up from whatever languages we've bumped up against in modern times. The borrowing has never stopped. And all languages are welcome. English says, "Come on in, and bring your crazy spelling with you!" We do our best with guerrilla, piñata, llama, angst, kitsch, fjord, Czech, gnocchi, and zucchini, even if we don't always remember exactly how to spell them.

This post was originally published in 2012.

Get Into the Halloween Spirit With Harry Potter and Star Wars Costumes and Accessories From Hot Topic

Hot Topic
Hot Topic

Halloween is fast approaching, and that means it's time to start picking up those decorations, planning your costume, and settling down for a few monster movie marathons. Hot Topic is already way ahead of you, with a selection of costumes and accessories based on fan-favorite movies and TV shows like Harry Potter, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Stranger Things, and Hocus Pocus. We've picked out some of our favorites for you to check out below.

Harry Potter

1. Beauxbatons Hat and Cape Uniform; $60

Hot Topic

If Fleur Delacour is your favorite character from the Triwizard Tournament, then this look is for you. Beauxbatons baby blue hat and cape can now be yours to prance around in and pretend you're from the magical French academy for young witches.

Buy it: Beauxbatons Hat, Beauxbatons Cape

2. Hogwarts Zip-Up Hoodie Cloak; $55

Hot Topic

One of the most iconic parts of the Hogwarts uniform is the cloak. The sweeping black robes looked so official and mystical in the movies that it almost seems wrong not to wear one if you want to be a Hogwarts student for Halloween. These hoodie cloaks are available in all four house colors.

Buy it: Hot Topic

3. Hogwarts Cardigan Sweater; $49

Hot Topic

Much like the cloak, the sweater vests and cardigans the students at Hogwarts got to wear are essential to any costume. You can choose from the four house crests and colors, so you can show your allegiance while also making a fashion statement.

Buy it: Hot Topic

4. Hogwarts Plaid Skirtall; $45

Hot Topic

Though this isn't a look you'd recognize from the Harry Potter movies, these plaid skirtalls—skirt overalls, basically—feature the crest and colors of whichever house you represent.

Buy it: Hot Topic

Star Wars

1. The Mandalorian Helmet; $17

Hot Topic

With the second season of The Mandalorian coming out right in time for Halloween, going as one of the show's main characters is a no-brainer. And since you probably can't pull off the Baby Yoda look, this simple Mando helmet is your best option.

Buy it: Hot Topic

2. Yoda Pet Costume; $20

Hot Topic

Baby Yoda is easily the cutest thing to emerge from the new Disney+ series, and there's no shortage of merchandise with that little green face plastered across it. From Amazon Echo Dots to slippers to LEGO sets, the little rascal is everywhere. But if you're more a fan of classic Yoda, you can impose your love of the character on your dog with this costume, complete with floppy green ears and tiny Jedi robe.

Buy it: Hot Topic

3. The Force Awakens Rey Costume; $48

Hot Topic

Rey represents a new generation of Star Wars hero, and her costume during her time on Jakku from The Force Awakens is still her most iconic look. It's also a costume that's simple enough to throw on for Halloween and still feel comfortable in.

Buy it: Hot Topic

4. R2-D2 with Pumpkin Decoration; $50

Hot Topic

When trick-or-treaters stop to collect candy from your house, greet them with this inflatable R2-D2 decoration that's primed for Halloween. Standing around 3 feet tall, this will show off your love for a galaxy far, far away and your holiday spirit.

Buy it: Hot Topic

The Nightmare Before Christmas

1. Sally Scrunchies Set; $10

Hot Topic

If you're looking to embrace your The Nightmare Before Christmas love in a more subtle way, opt for these Sally-approved scrunchies that embody the colors of the movie without going too far overboard.

Buy it: Hot Topic

2. Jack Skellington Button-Up Shirt; $35

Hot Topic

If Jack Skellington is your ultimate fashion hero, then this button-up pinstriped shirt is the ticket for you. It mimics Jack's look right down to the unique bat-shaped collar.

Buy it: Hot Topic

3. Jack and Sally 'Love is Eternal' Eyeshadow Palette; $17

Hot Topic

Makeup inspired by your favorite characters is the key to completing a Halloween look, and this palette will help you make a colorful, smokey eye featuring shades seen in The Nightmare Before Christmas. You can even use these colors long after Halloween is over once you've mastered your favorite style.

Buy it: Hot Topic

4. Zero Dog Costume; $29

Hot Topic

The real star of The Nightmare Before Christmas has to be the dog, Zero, and now you can drape your own pooch in the ghostly visage for under $30.

Buy it: Hop Topic

Other Categories

- Stranger Things
- Coraline
- Disney
- Haunted Mansion
- Hocus Pocus
- The Craft

Sign Up Today: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews, and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping newsletter!

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

6 Punctuation Marks Hated by Famous Authors

F. Scott Fitzgerald was not a fan of the exclamation mark.
F. Scott Fitzgerald was not a fan of the exclamation mark.
ChristianChan/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Punctuation marks are not the most important tools in a writer's toolkit, but writers can develop some strong opinions about them. Here are six punctuation marks that famous authors grew to hate.

1. The Oxford Comma

The Oxford comma, also known as the serial comma, inspires passionate emotions on both sides, but more frequently on the pro side. James Thurber, a writer for The New Yorker and author of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, made a case against the Oxford comma to his editor Harold Ross, in a discussion of the phrase “the red, white, and blue.” Thurber complained that “all those commas make the flag seemed rained on. They give it a furled look. Leave them out, and Old Glory is flung to the breeze, as it should be.”

2. The Comma

Gertrude Stein had no use for the Oxford comma, or any kind of comma at all, finding the use of them “degrading.” In her Lectures in America, she said, “Commas are servile and they have no life of their own … A comma by helping you along and holding your coat for you and putting on your shoes keeps you from living your life as actively as you should lead it.”

3. The Question Mark

The comma wasn't the only piece of punctuation Stein took issue with; she also objected to the question mark [PDF], finding it “positively revolting” and of all the punctuation marks “the completely most uninteresting.” There was no reason for it since “a question is a question, anybody can know that a question is a question and so why add to it the question mark when it is already there when the question is already there in the writing.”

4. The Exclamation Point

In Beloved Infidel, Sheilah Graham’s memoir of her time with F. Scott Fitzgerald in his later years, she describes the things she learned from him about life and writing. In a red-pen critique of a script she had written, he told her to “Cut out all these exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.”

5. The Apostrophe

Playwright George Bernard Shaw thought apostrophes were unnecessary and declined to use them in words like don’t, doesn’t, I’ve, that’s, and weren’t. He did use them for words like I’ll and he’ll, where the apostrophe-less version might have caused confusion. He made clear his disdain for the little marks in his Notes on the Clarendon Press Rules for Compositors and Readers, where he said, “There is not the faintest reason for persisting in the ugly and silly trick of peppering pages with these uncouth bacilli.”

6. The Semicolon

Kurt Vonnegut, in his essay “Here Is a Lesson in Creative Writing” (published in the book A Man Without a Country), comes out forcefully against the semicolon in his first rule: “Never use semicolons.” He insults them as representing “absolutely nothing” and claims “all they do is show you’ve been to college.” Semicolon lovers can take heart in the fact that he may have been kidding a little bit—after using a semicolon later in the book, Vonnegut noted, “Rules take us only so far. Even good rules.”