Blog - Proofreading and Copy Editing

English Spelling II

Let’s take a closer look at the origin of some of the confusing English spellings which are a proofreader’s bread and butter!

In my last entry I mentioned the impact of the Norman Conquest on our spelling system. Well, in addition to the French scribes’ insistence on the use of five letters only for vowel sounds, they also introduced several new spelling conventions. These included the following replacements:

• qu for cw in words like quick

• gh for g in enough

• ch for c in church

• ou for u in house

It was also the French scribes who began to use the letter c in cell and city, and who replaced the letter u with o in words like ‘come’, ‘love’ and ‘one’. This was done in an attempt to make the words easier to read, as at the time it was difficult to distinguish between u and vin and m, due to the very similar way in which all these letters were written.

In the sixteenth century there were a number of scholars who felt very strongly that the spelling of a word should reflect its history. They introduced a number of changes, such as the addition of the letter b to the words ‘debt’ and ‘doubt’ to indicate their Latin roots in the words debitum and dubitare. The letter g was also added to ‘reign’ to show that it had come from regno.

The very strange use of s in the word ‘island’ was due to a mistaken assumption that the word had come from the Latin insula – in fact the word is not Latinate at all, but has origins in Old English.

In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries there was an explosion of foreign loan words into English, which coincided with a period of worldwide exploration in which many new concepts and inventions were entering Europe. Our new words came from languages such as French, Greek, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese and brought with them a host of alien spellings:

• brusque

• cocoa

• idiosyncrasy

• pneumonia

• epitome

I guess you could say that the years of spelling-drilling at school is a small price to pay for such a beautifully rich and colourful language!

If words like ‘pneumonia’ and ‘nuance’ don’t phase you then maybe you’re a natural-born proofreader. Find out how to set yourself up as a freelancer on The Proofreading Agency’s links page.

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