Talky Tuesday: Y iz speling inglish so hard?

I’ve often joked that I’m glad I happened to be born in a country where English is my first language, because if it weren’t, the spelling alone would have forever kept me from even trying to learn it as a second.

I mean, it makes no sense. On the other hand, a lot of (but not all) other languages have spelling conventions that do make sense. Even Irish Gaelic, which I tried to learn but gave up on because I could just not pronounce it, allegedly has very strict spelling rules.

To be fair, though — English is all over the map. Exhibit 1:

How did we wind up with this messy orthography? It mainly happened because two dudes, one in England and one the the U.S., decided to write the definitive English dictionary, but followed different rules. But it also has to do with the convoluted descent of the language itself.

Let’s take a quick trip through time — but it’s going to start about five hundred years before what you were probably (or possibly not) taught in high school.

This would be Caedmon’s Hymn, a fragment from sometime in the 7th century C.E., which would mean over 1400 years ago. Here’s the opening line: “Nu sculon herigean heofonrices Weard…”

Any idea what that means? Well, probably not. The translation is, “Now must we praise heaven-kingdom’s Guardian…”

Perhaps the only word that jumps out as even close to anything in modern English is “Weard,” but only if you realize that English at this time capitalized nouns, and “Weard” is very close to “Ward,” who is legally not the guardian but the guarded. Think Dick Grayson, Bruce Wayne’s young “ward.”

“Nu” might kind of hint at “now,” but with a very warped vowel-sound.

Let’s check out the language about four hundred years later.

Here’s the first line of Beowulf, written in the early 11th century CE, in the original: “Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum, þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon…” This translates to “How we have heard of the might of the kings.” You probably recognize exactly one word in that sentence: The first person plural pronoun “We.”

Maybe, if you look closer, you might realize that “þeodcyninga” has the word “king” hiding in it, and is probably the possessive form of the noun built on the stem “cyning,” which would have been pronounced with a hard “C” at the beginning.

This is Old English, but it might as well be a foreign language, right? Let’s take another little jump forward:

“siþen þe sege and þe assaut watz sesed at troye…” This is the opening line of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, written around 1100 CE in a dialect of Middle English, and it’s probably a little easier to understand. In modern English, it reads, “After the siege and the assault of Troy…”

The funny looking letters that appear to be lowercase p’s in which the round part slipped down is actually the equivalent of the letters “th,” so you could interpret it as “sithen the sege,” and that second word reveals the reason for the biggest misunderstanding modern English speakers have about Middle English.

If you’ve ever seen something like “Ye Olde Shoppe,” that’s where this comes from. Instead of replacing the “þ” with “th,” early typesetters (who didn’t have the character) used a “y” instead, because to them it looked similar, and hence a non-existent word was born.

But back to the point, if you read that line out loud slowly, you can pretty much hear the modern English meaning in it. But look at how much the language had changed in just a century. Why? Simple. Beowulf and The Green Knight lived on opposite sides of the Norman Conquest.

This had a huge impact on the English language, infusing it with French. It’s a big part of the reason why we raise cows, pigs, and chickens, but eat beef, pork, and poultry. The farmers and cooks were lower-classes, so spoke English. The people who ate it were upper-class and rich, so spoke the courtly language, which was French.

Let’s jump ahead to 1392 and The Canterbury Tales, written in a later version of Middle English. I’ll bet that you can understand this one perfectly well: “Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote

The droghte of March hath perced to the roote…”

It’s basically giving us the setting — in April, when the rains of that month end the drought in March that affected plants right down to their roots.

Set the time machine for 1469, and Thomas Malory’s Le Mort d’Arthur, and look at this opening line: “HIt befel in the dayes of Vther pendragon when he was kynge of all Englond and so regned…”

I don’t even need to translate that, do I? Except maybe to point out that “Vther pendragon” is better know as “Uther Pendragon,” father of King Arthur.

One last jump of 140 years, and we get this line, for which I don’t even need to cite the author or source: “To be or not to be, that is the question.”

And so was modern English born.

Think about that one for a moment. If you were to jump into a time machine, you could only really safely go back a touch over 400 years, or maybe 550, and still be able to communicate with other English speakers — and that’s not even accounting for The Great Vowel Shift.

But spelling was not standardized in Shakespeare’s day. Here’s an example from Twelfth Night, aka Twelfe Night, or What You Will.

And if you want a really funny take on the language of the era by a very famous American author, check out Mark Twain’s hilarious short story 1601, which is naught more but an extended fart joke at Queen Elizabeth (I)’s expense.

Shakespeare would have loved it.

But after Shakespeare died in 1616, it was less than a century and a half before Samuel Johnson felt compelled to compile a dictionary of the English language. His initial attempt was to “fix” the language, but he soon admitted that this was folly.

Unfortunately, he didn’t really fix much, and it’s thanks to him that we have such weird (British) spellings as programme instead of program, tonne instead of ton, and all of those words with “ou” instead of just “o,” like “colour,” because he had this weird boner for maintaining the spellings of words from non-English sources, like French and Latin.

Meanwhile, Noah Webster was born three years after Johnson’s dictionary came out in 1755, and the United States as an independent nation were born by the time he was in his early 30s. He started working on his own dictionary with a goal toward simplifying spelling, and it came out in 1828 after a preliminary run at it in 1806.

Of course, Noah learned 26 languages in order to properly classify English words, and his dictionary was considered by many to outclass Johnson’s in every regard.

But this meant that there were still two English dictionaries with quite different spellings, and with authors who didn’t really simplify anything.

Sure, Webster gave us the short forms of program and ton, and the less nonsensical versions of “tyre” (tire), “kerb” (curb) and “gaol” (jail), but that was about it. He could have quashed such nonsense like the letter “C” (totally redundant as long as we have K and S around); really simplified vowel sounds by standardizing them as single letters and creating strong and defined diphthongs and, finally, getting rid of those stupid silent vowels, mostly “E”, that like to creep at the end of words after a consonant and change the pronunciation of the internal vowel.

So, again, come on. “Maik” is a much more sensible spelling than “make,” which would be two syllables in most other languages.

Speaking of “syllables,” what’s with those double letters? In Spanish, two L’s together makes sense because they are pronounced differently — “Lavas,” meaning you wash, is pronounced just like that: “lavas.” But “llaves,” meaning keys, is pronounced “ya-vays.”

Well, unless you’re from Argentina, in which case it becomes “sha-vays,” but the less said about that the better.

But it gets really weird because American English prefers things like “traveler,” while British English insists on “traveller.” Or what about “judgment” vs. “judgement?” (Hint: Sorry, Brits. You’re wrong. It does not need that second “e”. Webster was right.)

Ben Franklin had tried to simplify spelling before Webster, proposing a new alphabet, but that never caught on. Then again, some of the Founders actually proposed making the official language of the new nation Hebrew instead of English.

Or maybe they were actually going to go for German. Who knows?

In any case… English is the bastard child of Anglo-Saxon, Danish, French, Latin, German, Celtic, and (in latter days) borrowings from every country and culture we’ve managed to touch. As such, our spelling is a total hodgepodge and a hot mess, and it’s probably never going to get fixed.

On the other hand, a couple hundred years from now, everyone may speak Emoji, which would be a weird full circle back around from Egyptian hieroglyphics, where everyone knows what the little pictures mean even if they pronounce them in their own language.

Honestly, I’m not sure whether that would be a good thing or a bad thing.

Talkie Tuesday: More frequently misused expressions

I know that I have a lot of readers from all over the world for whom English might be their second language, so I enjoy doing pieces like this to help you improve your skills. However, believe it or not, all of these expressions are frequently said or written incorrectly by native English speakers, too, so you’re in good company!

Welcome to another installment of things you’re saying wrong. I’ve previously covered commonly misused words, as well as oft-mangled phrases. Today will be more of the latter, so let’s just get right to it.

Bated breath, not baited breath

The phrase means to wait for something with great excitement. For example, “Billy spent the night waiting for the family trip to Disneyland with bated breath.” The meaning of “bate” here is to moderate or restrain, so Billy is trying not to be too excited. To bait one’s breath might lure all kinds of fish, but it’s just not the right word. Like many of the examples on the list, the error is probably caused by people only having heard the phrase but never having seen it written down, so they just make big assumptions.

Beck and call, not beckon call

And no, we’re not referring to the musician here. While “beckon” and “call” are somewhat synonymous, the two don’t go together in this phrase. It can be confusing because one of the meanings of the word “beck” is a beckoning gesture. However, beck is a noun and beckon is a verb, so the one noun just goes better with the other which, in this case, is call, which is not being used as a verb.

Case in point, not case and point

The idea with this phrase is that the case proves the point you’re making. They are not coequal; one supports the other. So if your point is that not wearing a motorcycle helmet is dangerous and then you cite the case of a 25-year-old man who suffered permanent brain damage after an accident because he wasn’t wearing a helmet, then that story is the case in point — the example that supports your claim.

Commander-in-Chief, not Commander and Chief

This one gets misused all the time, and I’m not sure why. It’s a military title for the President of the United States, but the president only has one such title, which is the position of Commander, further clarified by indicating that the president is also the chief commander. Here, “in-chief” is an adjective describing the commandership, it’s not an additional title. Another great example of the “seen, never heard” phenomenon.

Damp squib, not damp squid

There’d be nothing unusual about a damp squid, of course, since they spend their lives in the ocean, but this expression refers to something that winds up being a dud — “The product launch went off like a damp squib.” In other words, nothing really happened. A squib is a small explosive usually powered by gunpowder, so if it gets wet it doesn’t go “boom.” A notable use of squibs were to simulate actors being hit by bullets in older films — a squib and a fake blood pack would be connected together under the actor’s clothes with a slit in the fabric in front and a little metal plating in back. Blowing up the squib would make the fake blood squirt out. This technique pretty much went away when Hollywood realized, “Hey — we can do this shit with CGI now!”

Do a 180°, not do a 360°

This one is not just a word usage error but a complete mathematical mistake. What the expression is supposed to mean is to do an about-face. That is, change your direction or position or point of view to the exact opposite of what it was. “Nancy’s favorite color used to be red, but then she saw the new fall designs and did a total 180°, so now she loves green.” If you do a 360°, then you wind up right back where you stared because you’ve figuratively gone full circle.

Dog-eat-dog world, not doggie dog world

 Yeah, a bit gross if you’re an animal-lover, but the more violent version is the correct one, and it refers to the cut-throat nature of life, at least in some circles. It’s a variation of the expression “every man for himself.” Again, it should be obvious how only ever hearing this expression led to the kinder, gentler version.

Due diligence, not do diligence

 This one comes from the land of law and business, and while you definitely have to do stuff to achieve it, the correct word is “due,” because it refers to what is necessary. “Due diligence” refers to the process by which a person, entity, business proposal, or other potential contractual arrangement is investigated. For example, if someone applies for a job at a bank, due diligence would involve looking into their background for any criminal record, outstanding debts or other financial problems, and anything else that might make them high-risk for entrusting them with sensitive customer information.

For all intents and purposes, not for all intensive purposes

Another great “heard not seen,” although I can’t even figure out what an intensive purpose would be. Intent refers to the mental reasoning behind any action; purpose refers the intended outcome of those actions. Put them together, and what you’re basically saying is whatever phrase follows this one, it fulfills both the reasoning behind the action and the intended outcome, although it’s not necessarily positive. “For all intents and purposes, the new law killed the proposed mall.”

Free rein, not free reign

 Oh, to confuse your monarchy and your horses! A reign is what a king or queen has, and you can remember that because both King and Reign have a G in them. A rein is how you steer a horse — and if you give your horse free rein, it can go whichever way it wants to. If you give your monarch free reign, they’ll probably wind up assassinated or deposed, so don’t to that. Unless you hate your monarch.

Hunger pangs, not hunger pains

Not to be confused with “hunger games.” While a pang is related to a pain — because it means a sudden, sharp pain — it’s specific to the expression.

Make do, not make due

Here we have the opposite of “due diligence.” The only way to actually make something due is to send a bill or invoice — but that’s not what this expression means. In fact, it’s kind of on the opposite end of the spectrum. “Make do” means to get along with what you have; that is, by making existing resources do what they need to. “They couldn’t afford a new car yet, so that had to make do with the ancient Fiat they inherited from the grandmother.”

Moot point, not mute point

A moot point is far from mute because the latter means silent, while moot point is one that should be quite open for debate or discussion — although it depends on which side of the pond you’re on. If you’re in the U.S., it’s also just as likely to mean something that’s not worth discussion. Still, this one is definitely not an example of heard and not seen, because “moot,” with a long double-O, sounds nothing like “mute,” which has a long liquid-U.

Nipped it in the bud, not nipped it in the butt

As attractive as the idea of biting someone’s ass can be, this one actually comes from the field of horticulture (“You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think!”), and the proper word is “bud,” as in a flower bud. And if you nip that off just as it’s budding and long before it blooms, ta-da! You’ll never grow a flower off of that stem. So this is very related to the concept of cutting something off at the roots.

On tenterhooks, not on tender hooks

Another heard, not seen. This refers to being in a state of suspense, but with tenterhooks, that was literal. They were involved in the process of drying cloth, which was stretched out in a frame called a tenter. And how was it held taut in that frame? With tenterhooks, duh. Tender hooks really feels like an oxymoron and would make Clive Barker sad.

Peace of mind, not piece of mind

Okay, for all of us with fierce mamas, we probably have examples of when they went down to our schools and gave dipshit administrators a piece of their minds, but that’s a different expression. Although, of course, it’s probably also the source of confusion. “Peace of mind” pretty much means just that — calming the fuck out of your brain bucket.

Shoo-in, not shoe-in

I don’t know where you’re sticking your shoes, but this phrase refers to someone who will just cruise into a job, elected office, chosen university, whatever, with no struggle. But, in this case, the “shoo” refers to sort of a reverse chase. That is, just like it’s easy to shoo a mouse out of your kitchen with a broom, these privileged people get easily chased into those positions of, well, privilege.

 Statute of limitations, not statue of limitations

This one is kind of hilarious, because the idea of a statue setting limits just makes me think of the Weeping Angels from Doctor Who. They are definitely the ultimate Statues of Limitations! Otherwise, though, the word you’re thinking of is “statute,” which refers to a law — and a statute of limitations determines how long after the fact someone can still be charged with a crime. Unfortunately, this confusion can lead to a really unfortunate mix-up between statutory rape, which is a terrible crime against a minor, and statuary rape, which is just a really unfortunate display of bad behavior in a sculpture garden. Although the latter is far more preferable than the former.

Take a different tack, not take a different track (or tact)

Again, words mean things, and this expression comes from the world of sailing. A tack was a way you turned your sails to take full advantage of the wind. In a related note, “the whole nine yards” actually means that you were hanging all of your sails on a three-masted ship, because each of those masts had three yardarms. In other news, because of the way that those yardarms stuck out of the masts, “yard” became the preferred Elizabethan slang for dick. You’re welcome!

Whet your appetite, not wet your appetite

This is what happens when you no longer need to sharpen your own knives or razors. Whet means just that — to hone or sharpen or make more acute. To “wet your appetite” doesn’t really make any sense if you think about it.

Worse comes to worst, not worse comes to worse

Another nice no brainer. I mean, if you start with worse and end with worse, where have you really gone? Nowhere. The only way down from worse (or bad) is worst. Period.

 You’ve got another think coming, not you’ve got another thing coming

Ironically, this one seems really ungrammatical in its original form, but “another think” is, in fact, how it was originally and has always been attested. And think about it honestly for a second. What, exactly, is the other “thing” coming their way? This really just sounds like the threat of a dick in the face. Calm your jets!

Bonus Round: One that’s right now, or now right

And this brings me to “spitting image,” which way back when started out as “spit and image.” Or maybe not. It’s just a really messy expression all around. But, in this case, I think we’ve actually managed to land on something simple and acceptable. Maybe.