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Feb 11, 2013
This week's theme
Words with initial silent letters

This week's words
pteridology
knacker
gnathic
wraith
chthonic

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A.Word.A.Day
with Anu Garg

There's too much noise in this world. Hundreds of channels on television. Giant billboards on both sides of the road. It appears everyone has something to say, and to say it loud. It's good to have a little quiet sometimes.

Well, this week's words do their part by carrying silent letters in their spellings.

Seriously, why in the world would we have silent letters? To make sure English orthography is not too easy? Who knows what might happen if everyone learned the language effortlessly?

Why? Well, it's a long story. A story as long as the history of the English language. Ultimately, the English spelling is a reflection of thousands of years of hodge-podge that brought it where it is today. And a reflection of humankind and its sometimes illogical ways.

Some letters that are quiet now were not as shy to speak up in the past. Their sounds just fell off over time. For example, the letter k in the word knee was pronounced in the beginning, but English speakers dropped the initial k (and g) sound in a word when followed by the letter n. In German they still pronounce it -- their word for knee, Knie, is pronounced with the k sound, for example.

Some words were deliberately manipulated. The letter b was inserted into the word debt (in Middle English it was det) to show its classical ancestry -- because Latin debit had a b. But we continued with the same pronunciation.

The word island has a sad story. We added the letter s to iland (literally, watery land) because we erroneously believed it was derived from French isle. The French word has dropped its s to become île, but we are still carrying that misbegotten s.

The word psychology, which we got from Greek has its p pronounced in Greek. We don't have the initial ps or pt combinations in English so we ignore the p sound.

At other times we were not very consistent. We borrowed many words from French that have their initial h silent. We continue with the word hour, while we have added the h sound in other words, such as human and hospital.

And so it goes.

This week we'll feature five words with initial silent letters. As a bonus, the last word of this week has its first two initial letters silent. Let's not be too hard on these silent letters -- they are not as deadweight as they seem. If nothing else, they help us get a higher score in Scrabble.

pteridology

PRONUNCIATION:
(ter-i-DOL-uh-jee)

MEANING:
noun: The study of ferns.

ETYMOLOGY:
From Greek pterido (fern) + -logy (study). Ultimately from the Indo-European root pet- (to rush or fly), which also gave us feather, petition, compete, perpetual, propitious, pinnate, and lepidopterology. Earliest documented use: 1855.

USAGE:
"From being novices in the world of pteridology five years ago, Kath and Wallace now preside over one of the finest collections of ferns in the country."
James Alexander-Sinclair; How Couple's Magic Touch Saved a Secret Sanctuary; The Express on Sunday (London, UK); Jul 9, 2000.

See more usage examples of pteridology in Vocabulary.com's dictionary.

A THOUGHT FOR TODAY:
If a rabbit defined intelligence the way man does, then the most intelligent animal would be a rabbit, followed by the animal most willing to obey the commands of a rabbit. -Robert Brault, writer (b. 1938)

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