One Little Mistake

I alway say that making mistakes is a vital part of learning a language,  to the point of tedium, I’m sure. Making mistakes is also, however, a key aspect of the formation of a language.

I’ve already written about how the word orange came about through simple acts of mishearing. In a similar vein, some of our most common words have come from misreading handwriting.

The word syllabus, beloved of every teacher the world over, is believed to be a misinterpretation of the Latin word sittybas, based on the Greek sittuba (title slip, label). You can imagine how in medieval times someone’s sloppy handwriting of sittybas could easily have been misinterpreted. It’s amazing to think though that just one instance of such a simple mistake could determine how we spell a word for centuries after. Or longer, really. Considering how many methods we have to record and verify the spelling of a word, and considering we don’t have to rely on interpreting handwriting, the spelling of syllabus is unlikely to change before the end of humanity. And even then, records of the word’s spelling might outlast us.

Sneeze is another word that probably comes from an error. It’s believed to have come from the Old English word fneosan, with the same meaning. However, you might be aware that, up to the middle of the 18th century, an S could sometimes be written like a lower-case F (see below)


From the US Bill of Rights

This was known as a long S, and was used when an S appeared at the beginning or in the middle of a word, particularly when it occurred immediately before another S. It’s believed that the spelling of some early form of sneeze actually began with an F, but this was mistaken for a long S (probably often), and, as the Fn sound disappeared from English, the Sn spelling became the standard one.

Again, this is something that’s unlikely to happen anymore due to the predominant use of typed text. Words may still change their spelling though. This could be due to words with similar spellings, such as discrete/discreet, or words that are difficult to spell, like accommodation, or paraphernalia. Even then, we’ve still got spellcheck and autocorrect, but they won’t always catch everything.

Even with the persistence of human error though, it’s basically impossible for us to permanently change the spelling of a word through human error. And while it’s great that spelling is standardised and we don’t have to try to interpret terrible handwriting, it’s still kind of sad that a medieval monk squinting at a dusty old parchment in order to determine a word’s standard spelling is something that will never happen.

9 thoughts on “One Little Mistake

  1. Mistakes indeed… you should
    Go back and look at the comments on my post “just deserts” and read all who tried to correct my mistake there… when deserts in this sense does not mean a dry desolate place but rather an archaic French term for “to deserve” which has fallen to the wayside.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. My great uncle’s surname was mis-spelled on his birth certificate – it should have ended ‘es’ but the registrar missed out the ‘e’! I’m sure the spelling of lots of other names have changed subtly over the years for just that reason… 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Years ago, I saw a segment by The Two Ronnies in which they (in character of that time) pronounced all the ‘s’s as ‘f’, which might have been good comedy (I can’t remember) but bad linguistics.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. […] Well, yes actually: it’s that simple! Though there are some theories that hood was actually a local dialect form of wood, as he lived in the woods. Well, the forest. Interestingly, his French name, Robin Des Bois (Robin of the Woods, or Robin Woods), seems to support this theory, though this may have simply been due to a mistranslation which stuck. […]


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