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Today's Word



May 2, 2016
This week’s theme
Words that appear misspelled

This week’s words

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with Anu Garg

Letters go missing from where you’d expect them. Sounds appear where you wouldn’t expect them. English spelling is a great whodunit.

What’s the letter b doing in the word debt? Well, it was stuffed into the word to make it look more like Latin (as in debitum). In French they still spell it dette.

Where did the r sound in the word colonel come from? In short, we borrowed (from French and Italian) two variants of the term: colonel and coronel. After a period of trying out both, we decided to keep spelling from one and pronunciation from the other version.

(While we are talking about colonels, a colonel is, literally, a little column, because he heads a column of soldiers.)

So who did it? We all did. Every time we use the language in a particular way, we cast a vote for that usage. Some usage (or misusage) gathers enough votes to kick out the existing spelling or pronunciation.

The words in this week’s selection may look like they are misspellings, but they are not.



noun: 1. One who stares especially with an open mouth. 2. Something that is an object of staring: anything unusual.

From gape + seed, from Old Norse gapa (to open the mouth, stare) + Old English saed (seed). Earliest documented use: 1598.

The idiom “to sow gapeseed” means to gape at something (say, a fair) instead of doing some useful work (say, sowing wheat). This, and other idioms, hint at our agrarian roots:
-to sow wild oats
-to sow the seeds (of something)
-as you sow, so shall you reap, etc.

“‘And you have not spoken to him since?’
‘Not a word. But that does not stop him from staring at me like a fool. He might be a wonder in Parliament, but here in Bath he looks the veriest gapeseed.’”
Catherine Blair; Athena’s Conquest; Zebra Regency Romance; 2001.

Man can be the most affectionate and altruistic of creatures, yet he's potentially more vicious than any other. He is the only one who can be persuaded to hate millions of his own kind whom he has never seen and to kill as many as he can lay his hands on in the name of his tribe or his God. -Benjamin Spock, pediatrician and author (2 May 1903-1998)

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