I'm Maeve Maddox.

I write about English usage, public education, and US popular culture. Welcome to my site.

TWO BOOKS THAT OFFER IMMEDIATE HELP TO WRITERS!

February

I just read the following in a meme on Facebook:

I’m fairly certain
that the person
who put the first r
in February
also decided
how to spell Wednesday

Contrary to what the joke implies, spellings aren’t invented by individuals, and not all English speakers drop the first r in February or the first d in Wednesday.

However, in the case of February, the English spelling has been affected by human tinkering.

Panel from the third-century mosaic of the months at El-Djem, Tunisia, Roman Africa

Panel from the third-century mosaic of the months at El-Djem, Tunisia, Roman Africa

The name we attach to the second month in our calendar is from the Latin verb februare, “to purify.” A month in the Roman calendar acquired the name Febrarius (also Februarius)  because of a purification ceremony held during it.

Because of sound shifts, the word februarius came into some European languages with the original b, but into others with a v instead.

 

Latin februarius became feverier in Old French, the source of many English words. Early texts in Old English show both b and v versions of the word, but in Middle English (the form of English spoken and written from 1150 to about 1470) the spelling was feverer.

Then came the tinkering.

English spelling has long been the target of contempt and efforts at reform.

As early as the fourteenth century, scholars steeped in Greek and Latin looked at English words that could trace their origins to the classical languages and viewed them as “corrupted.” They set themselves to “restoring” what they felt to be more appropriate spellings. Because most of the spellings they “improved” represented established English pronunciation, the scholars’ well intentioned efforts had unintended consequences.

The usual effect of the scholarly changes was to alter the pronunciation of the word. For example, our word perfect was spelled parfit by Chaucer: “He was a veray parfit gentil knight.” The c was added to show the word’s derivation from Latin perfectio. In time, the new spelling produced a new pronunciation. Parfit become perfect, in speech as well as in writing.

In at least one instance, however, an established pronunciation held its own through the centuries: the legal term indict.

Indict came into English as endite and was later spelled indite. Then, in the sixteenth century, learned tinkerers introduced a c to reflect the word’s derivation from the Latin verb indictare. The new spelling won on the page, but English speakers continue to pronounce indict as /in-dite/.

As for the modern pronunciation of February, most US English speakers say the first two syllables as /feb-yoo/, but speakers of British English say, /feb-roo/.

Many British speakers do drop the first d in Wednesday, but not all. British actor John Nettles, who plays Detective Barnaby in Midsomer Murders, pronounces Wednesday as /wed-nz-day/.

Moral: The disconnect between the spelling and pronunciation of some English words is not a sinister plot to annoy English speakers. And there is often more than one “right” way to pronounce an English word in Standard English. It all depends upon which Standard one speaks.

 

Beware of Whom with Parenthetical Expressions

This morning the following caption appeared in a Democrat-Gazette article about a bank robbery:
Springdale police are searching for this man whom they say robbed an Arvest Bank branch Thursday.
The error with whom in this caption is common in sentences that contain a parenthetical phrase or clause: a group of words thrown into another clause, separating

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New Word: DeVossed

A Google search for “devossed” in quotation marks brings up only 521 hits on February 9, 2017, but my spidey sense tells me this word is destined to achieve greater numbers in the following weeks and months.
The Urban Dictionary has already posted an entry:
DEVOSSED: When the last tiny shred of hope is shattered. Origin: Betsy

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10 Requests to the Press

Please stop reaching for false equivalencies in an effort to appear unbiased. You’re not being biased when you acknowledge that something bad is

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NOT DeVos

We need a Secretary who will reform the Department of Education, not gut the public school

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What Makes A Word Fancy?

If dossier is a “fancy French word,” wouldn’t imprimatur be a “fancy Latin

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Anger in the Air

Have you ever made a survey-caller so angry he left you shaking when you hung

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A New Shibboleth

Cartoon by Bennett, Chattanooga Times Free Press
A reader writing a letter to the editor in my daily paper described an incident in which he went shopping, filled his basket with items totaling about $300 and then walked out of the store without completing his purchases.
What prompted him to do that?
When he entered the check-out line and

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Gaslighting

The villainous husband in Gaslight has slipped a previously lost object into his wife’s purse. He insists that she put it there.
One of my favorite movies of all time is Gaslight (1944) starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer.
Based on a 1938 play by Patrick Hamilton and directed by George Cukor, Gaslight combines an extraordinarily talented

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Jeopardy and Silent H

Every so often the Jeopardy writers get it wrong. They certainly did on December 12, 2012.
One of the categories had to do with “silent H.” The first response that I noticed made perfect sense: honesty. The word honesty is spelled with an h but pronounced without one.  Ergo, the h in honesty is a “silent h.”
The

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