Lesson 2 of Studies in Etymology introduces the idea of how certain words have developed irregular spellings via atypical transformations of Latin words or inconsistent spellings during the Middle English period. A few examples listed in the book are words like “contiguous” and “fractious,” which one would have expected to be spelled “continguous” and “fractous” respectively, based on the parallel development of words with similar origins. It also explains that words derived from French influence, like “contain,” used to be spelled in a myriad of ways until spelling standards were established for verbs that included the same prefixes, stems, and suffixes (Dunmore and Fleischer 45).
Besides those listed in the text, there are many other words that have changed or been created as a result of misunderstandings and misspellings over time. One is the word “pea.” A pea is a small, green legume that comes in a pod of other peas (or pease). In modern English, this is its singular form. However, the word that is now used for the plural of pea, “pease,” was originally the singular. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, it began as the Greek word pison, which came into Latin as pisum, the plural of which was pisa. This Latin plural was the basis for the Old English word pise, which eventually became the Middle English “pease.” Despite being derived from a plural word, “pease” was initially used to refer to the singular, while “peasen” became the new plural, signified by the Germanic “-en” suffix. However, in practical use, “pease” was frequently mistaken for a plural form because it ends in an S sound, like many plural words do in English. Thus, the singular was shortened to pea.
Another word derived from misunderstandings in the Middle English period is “nickname.” This word, along with a handful of others, developed through a process called metanalysis. “Nickname” comes from a compound word composed of “eke” and “name.” Eke was a word in Middle English that meant “also,” so an “ekename” was an additional name that someone could be called (Merriam-Webster.com). However, since literacy rates were so low in this time, most people were unlikely to see the word written out that way. As such, the N from “an” in “an ekename” gradually shifted onto the next word, leaving us with “a nekename,” or a nickname. Apron and adder actually went through the same process in reverse, meaning that they used to be “a napron” and “a nadder” before the Ns shifted onto the article that came before them (Online Etymology Dictionary).
In Modern English, this process has not stopped. Although literacy rates are much higher than they once were, English is a broad and confusing language that contains many words capable of tripping up even native speakers. One example of this is the word “irregardless,” which likely began as a combination of the synonyms “irrespective” and “regardless.” The prefix “ir-” at the beginning of a word typically means “not,” but people who use the word “irregardless” just use it to signify the same thing as “regardless.” The prefix is superfluous in this case (Merriam-Webster.com). This word is used so frequently and has been in the lexicon for so long that most dictionaries have added it as an official word, yet when one types “irregardless” into a word processor, the program will generally underline the word or automatically change it to “regardless” because it is still treated as incorrect in professional circles.
Something similar happened with a misspelling of the word “espresso,” which comes directly from Italian, where it was used to describe coffee that was brewed to order, rather than being made in large portions ahead of time. In English, it refers to a specific kind of highly concentrated coffee, but the spelling is the same (Merriam-Webster.com). Or at least, it is usually the same. The word has actually been mispronounced and misspelled so often as “expresso” that this is now acknowledged in modern dictionaries as a variant spelling of “espresso.” In fact, “expresso” is so widely accepted that it does not seem to be modified by word processors the way “irregardless” is, even though both are considered informal.
The way these words have changed over time demonstrates the fact that language is never stagnant. The manners in which people convey information are constantly shifting, and it is important to consider that in all forms of communication. Whether one is writing a poem, a letter, or an article for an academic journal, word choice is a vital component of the efficacy of the piece. The same can be said of messages delivered by the spoken word. As such, understanding the history and development of a language is one of the best ways to enhance one’s creativity and overall competence.
– “Adder (n.).” Online Etymology Dictionary, Douglas Harper, http://www.etymonline.com/word/adder#etymonline_v_5097.
– Dunmore, Charles W., and Rita M. Fleischer. Studies in Etymology. 2nd ed., Focus Publishing, 2008.
– “Espresso.” Merriam-Webster.com, Merriam-Webster, Inc., http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/espresso.
– “Irregardless.” Merriam-Webster.com, Merriam-Webster, Inc., http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/irregardless.
´- “Nickname.” Merriam-Webster.com, Merriam-Webster, Inc., http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/nickname.
– “Pea (n.).” Online Etymology Dictionary, Douglas Harper, http://www.etymonline.com/search?q=pea.