Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Wednesday WOLF

I've got a collection of random information in my brain that makes me an awesome Trivial Pursuit partner, but is completely useless when it comes to real world application. Like say, job applications. I thought I'd share some of this random crap with you in the form of another acronym-ific series. I give you - Word Origins from Left Field - that's right, the WOLF (oh, how clever is she? She made an acronym out of her agency's name!) Er... ignore the fact that the "from" doesn't fit.

Here's an interesting little bit of language history that I happened upon the other day, involving silent letters.

I've always been kind of amused at the fact that you don't pronounce the "h" in ghost. It's kind of funny, if you think about it. It's there... but you never hear it, and no one dare say it... Oooooo. Anyway, why is that pesky letter there?

People were writing long before the dictionary existed. Mostly it was the monks who did the copying and writing of books, and pretty much everyone wrote words however they felt they should be spelled. Likewise, the printing press existed before the dictionary, and we ended up in the same situation. Lots of people from all different kinds of backgrounds were printing in the English language, but bits of their own heritage were filtering in to the mix.

The word ghost was originally spelled without the "h," nice and phonetically. But printers from Holland tossed an "h" in there because that's how they spelled it, and for some reason, it stuck.

Interestingly enough, the printers weren't only tossing in letters because of cultural differences. They also liked nice straight lines (who can blame them?) and so if they had to knock an extra letter off of a word or two in order to get a nice, tidy justification, they'd go for it. Words like, logic, magic, and music used to have a "k" at the end, but they got nicked.

In 1755 Samuel Johnson had enough of arbitrary spelling, and made the first English Dictionary. Shortly after the American Revolution, Noah Webster waged his own kind of war against the English by writing an American Dictionary, in which he knocked the "u" out of words like color, flavor and honor.

How do I know all this? Well, it's because I read books. Most of this stuff was news to me, I learned it from THE WORD SNOOP by Ursula Duborsarsky. If you're as big of a nerd as I am, you might want to check it out.


Linda King said...

Really interesting! I'm a teaching assistant and when we're doing spelling it would be so much easier for the kids to remember if every 'c' word ended in ck! Blame the printers, eh? Great post :-)

Mindy McGinnis said...

Thanks Linda! The WOLF just recently picked back up here in 2013, but I'm such an etymology geek that I'm planning on continuing it indefinitely.

Benjamin Franklin actually made a very aggressive push to eliminate letters that he felt were confusing in English. He wanted to get rid of W, X, J and.. something else. I forget off the top of my head, but he actually had some really good ideas for taking the English language and making a distinctly American version. However, there were other concerns like... building the country, so the language ideas were swept under the rug.

dcamardo said...

Have you ever read THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN by Simon Winchester?

It's about the making of the OED. Fascinating stuff.

Mindy McGinnis said...

Derrick - on the TBR pile!

Robin Breyer said...

Ooooo. One of my favorite topics. I actually took some university classes on this. Hehehehe!

While it is true some letters were added or removed by the printers (and grammarians), still others are there because they used to be pronounced. Such as the 't' in often and the 'gh' in words like night (it was closer to the German 'ch' as in Bach and nocht). Also, the strange spelling conventions of English preserves some of the word origins. Words from Old English and Norman French were spelled using different conventions and many of the words still retain that convention. One of the sad things is that Old English had its own letters that were dropped after the Norman Conquest. Ash, thorn, eth, and wyn. Thorn stuck around longer (in fact it is included in all modern fonts) and was transcribed with a 'y'. So when you see "ye old shoppe" the correct modern name is just "the old shop".

I just love talking about stuff like this. It is dangerous to get me started.

Mindy McGinnis said...

Robin - you just might be a more of a nerd than me. Just... maybe.