Skookum’s home page

Stupid Spellings

by Peter Donnelly

The spellings discussed on this page are widely used and some are found in dictionaries, but to my mind they are wrong and always will be wrong.

barbeque

I’m not aware of any other word where terminal que is pronounced “kew,” and whenever I see this spelling I want to say “barbek.” Barbeque seems to be a nod to a false etymology, barbe à queue, or perhaps a back formation from the abbreviation BBQ. The spelling barbecue better represents the origins and pronunciation of the word. (For what it’s worth, it’s spelled that way in French as well.)

the boss’ daughter

In speech it is always the boss’s daughter and the princess’s gown, but in print you are increasingly likely to see the boss’ daughter and the princess’ gown, as if the final syllable did not exist. I’m not sure of the origin of the rule, if that’s what it is, that you can’t have apostrophe-ess after another ess, but I suspect it has something to do with the fact that we were taught not to do this with classical names: Claudius’ reign. That rule is dubious in itself, except where the pronunciation dictates it (e.g. for Jesus’ sake), and I admire Robert Graves for ignoring it in his historical novels. If the possessive ess is pronounced, it should be printed; it’s as simple as that.

Evidently the phobia about multiple esses is spreading to the plural as well. A Web search turns up an alarming incidence of one of my favorite actress and one of the witness.

It would be easy to get into a full-blown rant about the possessive case and the apostrophe, but this is not the place, and plenty of others have already done it. I would only point out that a great deal of the nonsense that gets spouted—for example, that inanimate objects can’t own things, therefore the car’s color is incorrect—results from a misunderstanding of the grammatical role of the possessive case. Since it it can indicate various relationships between two nouns, maybe we should go back to calling it the Saxon genitive.

As for the plural possessive, spellings such as plumbers union and members entrance are now commonplace, but purely on grounds of convenience rather than grammar. The fact is that the nominative singular can be used in an attributive way (member entrance, million-man march), but the plural in the same role is almost always in the possessive case, as you can prove by substituting an irregular plural such as men, women, or children. A copyediting blog argues, for example, that there is no apostrophe in Citizens Brigade because “it’s a brigade made up of citizens, not a brigade for citizens.” By the same logic, we should say women brigade (or, for that matter, the Children Crusade), but no one ever would.

everyday it’s the same thing

Everyday as an adjective is pronounced as one word with the primary accent on the first syllable: “an everyday activity.” Elsewhere we use two words: “They see each other every day.” But several major corporations have coined slogans like “Great savings everyday.” It may be punchy, but it’s wrong, because it doesn’t reflect the way we say the phrase when we read it aloud, with the first and last syllable equally stressed.

the fifth estate

The CBC has been running an investigative program called The Fifth Estate for more than 30 years, and for just as long the Globe and Mail, one of Canada’s better-edited newspapers, has been styling it (at least some of the time) the fifth estate. Why? Because that’s the way the CBC styles it: all lower case. To give just one more example, the Canadian telecommunications company Wind was styled by some media as WIND, even though it was not an acronym.

Should the styles used in logos or other corporate material trump normal rules of spelling and punctuation in our own prose? I can’t add much to this question that has not already been expressed with eloquent common sense by Bill Walsh in this and other articles on The Slot. But the short answer is no.

Personal names are a tougher question. If your name is Mackenzie, I think you have every right to ask us to spell it MacKenzie. But the spellings insisted on by singer k.d. lang and poet rob mclennan (who, by the way, has written a book he calls g h o s t s) are really no different from marketing logos, and if it were up to me I would capitalize them appropriately in a media review. I throw up my hands when confronted by something like will.i.am, which is strictly a stage name; it’s hard to imagine any other orthography that would not be even sillier than the original. (I do note, however, that at time of writing the Wikipedia article vacillates between this and Will.i.am.)

forté

I know we will never go back to pronouncing forte (in the sense of “strong point”) as one syllable. People got the idea that it was Italian, so they started pronouncing the final e. But spelling the word with an acute accent, as if it were French, just compounds the error.

Merriam-Webster’s usage note on the pronunciation of this word is infuriating: pointing out that some fuddy-duddies still insist on “fort,” they state that this “does not exactly reflect French either: the French would write the word le fort and would rhyme it with English for.” So what? It’s utterly irrelevant what the French would say, because it is an English word and has been since at least 1682. There are thousands of words of French origin in English, and there’s surely no rule that their pronunciations should “reflect” the French. And even if there were such a principle, which French should the pronunciation reflect: Norman French, which is the source for much of our vocabulary, or modern French, with its many silent letters?

mic

Mic as an abbreviation for microphone makes no more sense than it would as a nickname for Michael. There is no analogy for a long i before terminal c (Bic, sic, tic) and indeed we were all taught at an early age that the absence of silent e at the end of a one-syllable word usually means that the preceding syllable is short. Please, let’s stick with mike, which is attested as far back as 1927 in the OED.

Ben Zimmer provides some interesting background on mic, which—horribile dictu—is now Associated Press style.

miniscule

This spelling, first attested in 1898, is now seen at least as often as minuscule. Evidently it reflects the popular association of the word with mini instead of its true origins in Latin minus/minor. I see no reason to change the longstanding spelling on grounds of ignorance.

naivete

Naivete and naïveté are common spellings that reflect the misguided tendency to give imported words something like their original pronunciation (e.g. “crepp” for crepe). But the anglicized form, naivety, has been in the language since at least the eighteenth century. We don’t say, or write, réalité or infinité; why make an exception for naivety?

Québec

When I was a lad, back in the last century, it was pretty clearly understood in Canada that French was one language and English was another. I was always told that my French-Canadian grandmother had been born in Three Rivers, Quebec (“Kwehbek”), and the names of my uncles Robert and Roger were pronounced in accordance with the language being spoken.

That has all changed, at least among English-speakers. With the rise of Quebec nationalism and the political correctness of self-identification (Inuit vs. Eskimo, Sami vs. Lapp, etc.), the centuries-old English pronunciation of Quebec has been replaced by various and sometimes grotesque attempts to mimic the French pronunciation: “Kaybek,” “Kewbek,” and, most commonly, “Kuhbek.” And of course no one would now think of calling Trois-Rivières by anything other than its French name, albeit somewhat mangled unless the speaker is willing and able to switch linguistic gears in mid-sentence. Montreal still retains its English pronunciation, but increasingly it appears as Montréal in print. Indeed, the English edition of the Canadian Encyclopedia uses the French spellings Québec and Montréal throughout; which is very curious, because the French edition makes no apology for calling my province Colombie-Britannique despite its overwhelming self-identification as British Columbia.

There is not necessarily anything wrong with self-identification, especially when it involves the replacement of names perceived as offensive. I’m sure no one would want to go back to calling the Dene-tha people of northern Canada by the name of Slave, an appellation that is preserved in several place-names. But surely some common sense must prevail. For example, the town of Comox near my home is named after a local aboriginal tribe or band—first nation is surely not an accurate term, but that’s another story—which now labels itself as K'ómoks. I have no idea—and I doubt that more than a handful of outsiders do—what the apostrophe and the diacritical mark indicate, other than that the pronunciation in the (extinct) native tongue is somehow different from the traditional English one. The spelling just complicates everyone’s life for the sake of making a political statement.

The following picture shows an official British Columbia road sign. Apparently alphanumeric code is now the second official language of the province. (A friend of mine wittily remarked, “I always thought Squamish was spelled with an 8.”)


Canada also offers the instructive example of Metis, a term widely used for a distinct racial and social group descended from aboriginals and European fur-traders. This word has a long history in English, where it was originally pronounced “meet-iss”; I last remember hearing this pronunciation in Alberta in the 1970s. However, following the principle that you should not use an English word to describe a people whose primary language is (or was) French, it began to be printed Métis. And since we all know, or think we know, that the final consonant is never spoken in French,* the pronunciation became “maytee”, with the accent variously on the first or second syllable. The trouble is, the French word is actually pronounced “may-TEES”. So we have replaced a good English word with a weird hybrid that is neither English nor French.

[ *I have heard at least two American television commentators who are normally very careful in their speech pronounce coup de grâce as if the last word were the same as in Mardi Gras. A little learning is a dangerous thing.]

The pressure to de-anglicize is also taking place for foreign place-names, largely because atlas-makers and other influential people are fearful of offending national governments. Peking and many other Chinese cities lost their traditional transliterations (and English pronunciations) after the regime began enforcing the use of pinyin. For the rest of the world, my edition of the Times Atlas gives prominence to foreign spellings even when these are seldom or never used by English-speakers: the capital of Russia is labelled Moskva (not in Cyrillic letters, thankfully) with the familiar English Moscow in a smaller font and in parentheses. The guiding principle, I suppose, is that we should prefer the term used by the linguistic majority of the place in question. But even the Times editors are at a loss when it comes to the capital of bilingual Belgium: the main map of the country labels it Bruxelles (Brussel), giving preference to French over Flemish, but in the inset map it is Brussels (Bruxelles, Brussel).

I don’t pretend that there is any easy solution when governments or linguistic groups insist on certain English spellings. But let’s keep in mind that English words for places and peoples have their own histories and their own reasons for existing, and they evolved in conformity with the cadence of our speech. If we are not speaking or writing French when we refer to Quebec, it’s pretty silly to pretend we are.

Qur’an

When the Associated Press changed its style for the name of the Islamic scripture from Koran to Qur’an, the stylebook editor justified the change as an attempt “to come up with a spelling that is understandable to United States readers and as close as possible to the actual pronunciation.” First of all, what don’t American readers understand about Koran, a word that has been with us in that form since at least 1735? As to the second point, why does Arabic trump English for the “actual pronunciation”? This is the same kind of wrong thinking that gives us “fee-LAY” for fillet, “parmezhan” for parmesan, and “oh-MAZH” for homage. Besides, Qur’an is not a spelling, it is a transliteration, and there’s a big difference. Most of us are unfamiliar with the system used by scholars to represent Arabic words: we are apt to be puzzled at seeing “qu” not followed by another vowel; the consonantal sound represented by the “q” does not exist in English; and the apostrophe is simply meaningless to us. So I fail to see how Qur’an better represents any pronunciation of the word when speaking English than does Koran.

There’s a distinct odour of political correctness here, but I wonder if there isn’t something even more insidious: a craven kowtowing before a “holy book” which it would be sacrilege to name in the tongue of the infidel.

See this blog for some trenchant commentary on this “orthographical dhimmitude.”

s/he

I thought this monstrosity had died the death it deserved until I saw it in a National Post editorial, where it was used deliberately to conceal the gender of a mysterious Mr. or Ms X. It’s not really a stupid spelling, because it’s not a spelling at all. It’s not even an abbreviation like etc. that is readily expanded in speech or thought. It’s not anything you can actually say. It’s just the writer’s way of dodging the he or she vs. she or he issue while leaving it up to the reader to fill in the awkward gap created in the sentence.

Even on its own terms—as a symbol akin to the one-time “name” of “the artist formerly known as Prince”—s/he fails on the grounds of its peculiar use use of the slash/virgule. Offhand I can’t think of another case where this mark is used to set off an optional element, the way the parentheses do in the only slightly less objectionable (s)he. By the conventions of modern punctuation, s/he should be interpreted as ess or he, which of course means nothing at all.

Almost always you can avoid un-PC pronouns by rewriting, either by recasting to the plural or by eliminating the need for any pronoun at all. The rest of the time, he or she does just fine, just as ladies and gentlemen does fine in the introduction to a speech. You can reverse the order if you like, but it will always seem ostentatious to do so. (2017 update: with the rise of “gender fluidity,” the preceding advice appears almost quaint. Ladies and gentlemen is being replaced by everyone, and he or she is rapidly losing ground to they, as the social justice warriors bully us into avoiding any reference to “binary” gender. Sometimes I think I’ve lived too long.)

’til

According to the OED, the preposition till has been spelled that way since at least 1300. Why then do so many people persist in treating it as an abbreviation of until, as in “open ’til midnight”? For that matter, why did the producers of the TV series Til (sic) Debt Do Us Part think they had to make up an entirely new word? (Maybe they’re the same people who came up with Look-A-Like as the name for another show.)

See also Weasel Words and Stop Saying That!