Why is English spelling so messed up? We get the same sounds spelled different ways (two, to, too), the same spellings pronounced different ways (the ch in 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.
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 word ach. For a while they made use of runic characters (þ, ȝ, 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, þouȝte, 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/.”
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” sound from wr words, and the “g” sound from gnat and gnaw. But by the time the change was complete, the writing habits had already been established.
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.
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—and 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 ... you get the idea.
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 the word 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—from the high life, fashion, courtly manners, cuisine, and the arts—came into English starting around 1700. We got words like bouillon, casserole, vinaigrette, protégé, ballet, bouquet, boutique, silhouette, etiquette, faux pas, and hors d’oeuvres. 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.
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 wild spellings with you!” We do our best with guerrilla, piñata, llama, angst, kitsch, fjord, gnocchi, and zucchini, even if we don't always remember exactly how to spell them.
A version of this story ran in 2012; it has been updated for 2023.
Are you a logophile? Do you want to learn unusual words and old-timey slang to make conversation more interesting, or discover fascinating tidbits about the origins of everyday phrases? Then get our new book, The Curious Compendium of Wonderful Words: A Miscellany of Obscure Terms, Bizarre Phrases, & Surprising Etymologies, out now! You can pick up your copy on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, or Bookshop.org.