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As much as we might judge people for their bad spelling, the truth is that English spelling doesn't make any goddamn sense. Just look at that sentence: Why is there an "n" but no "n" sound in "goddamn"? It turns out there's one perfectly good reason for that and many other eccentricities of the language, and that one good reason is actually a bunch of stupid reasons that are all shitty and terrible. Like ...

"O" and "U" (and "C" and "K") Sound the Same Because of Sloppy Handwriting


The Crazy Rule:

Writing has become second nature to us, so it's easy to forget how schizophrenic the letter "o" is. You get the word "con," where its sound is basically "aw," but then in "son" it's encroaching on "u" territory, and that's a good way to get your face cut ("u" don't take no shit). Then you have "comb" and "tomb," which are totally different "o" sounds despite having no right to be. Then there are phrases like "some honey tongue" and ... whoa, this article is already way dirtier than we expected it to be.

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We know what that sentence has all of you thinking about: that "mouth" is spelled pretty weirdly, too.

The Stupid Reason:

It all comes down to sloppy handwriting. In medieval times, highly stylized writing focused on the "minims," or vertical lines in a letter, and the smudgy nature of ink confused people trying to read it. For example, "in," "ni," "m," "iii," "ui," and "iu" might all look exactly the same because the horizontal lines written into each letter were so thin, they tended to smudge or just fade away. For example, this:


This says "animal," like you fancy yourself in the sack, or "annnal," which is a rather annoying way to ask for it, or "aiiuiiai," which is the sound you're going to make when you head for your partner's fire door without permission and get punched in the throat. The solution to all this buggery was to just stop using "u" for some words, like "some," "love," and "come," and wow, we just cannot get out of the gutter here. This is the reason why you see an "o" for a "u" sound when it's next to an "n" or an "m," like in "monkey" and "ton," and also why you see a "c" before a "k" when the letter appears next to more minims. The "c" was a good way to separate the "k" from letters it could be easily confused with, which led to spellings such as "lick" and "flick" and ... we're going to open a new tab here and take care of some things before this next entry.

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By which we mean listening to some classic Slick Rick.

Some Words Are Spelled Wrong Because Academics Are Pretentious Jerkwads


The Crazy Rule:

Every once in a while English words will have silent letters in them -- like "receipt," "debt," "scissor," and "island." And there's actually a really interesting explanation for that: English teachers hate you and want you to fail. Why else is the language so littered with invisible minefields of perceived stupidity?

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"I contain 19 words that have a 'q' not followed by a 'u.' Enjoy guessing, motherfucker."

The Stupid Reason:

Over the last 500 years, there's been a continuing effort to standardize all spelling -- and a lot of the stuffy academic types making the rules made a real mess of it. In the 16th century, the people putting together dictionaries decided to insert a "b" into "debt" and "doubt" to remind everyone that they had evolved from the Latin word "debitum" -- even though the preferred spellings, "dette" and "doute," made way more sense. But hey, at least the common man would forever be reminded of precious Latin, thus ensuring that it would never become a dead langua- oh wait, no, it died more completely than an engineer on the away team, didn't it? The academics did the exact same thing with "receipt" (then spelled "receit," but drawn from the Latin word "recepta") and smugly smirked down at generations of dyslexics accidentally writing "recipe."

"You've never heard of the silent 'x'? Enjoy your mainstream spelling, sheeple."

Changing the spelling to match the Latin origin is at least mildly understandable, if kind of a dick move -- but less understandable is changing spellings to match Latin words they have nothing to do with, which also happened.

At least they resisted the urge to use that stupid font.

The origin of the word "island" is the Old English word "yland" or "iland," but since the Latin word "insula" has a similar meaning, academics decided to just throw an "s" in there, because more Latin = more smarter. That one was so influential that it actually changed the word for the central walkway in a church -- up until then spelled "aile" -- to "aisle," because "s" is friggin' sexy, we guess. All those curves. Go ahead and toss it in there. Liven that sucker up.

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The Difference Between "-el" and "-le" Is Due to Stubbornly Clinging to Tradition


The Crazy Rule:

Actually, there are no rules here at all. This is the Thunderdome of English spelling. You know what? That's not even fair. The Thunderdome had at least one rule. This shit is way worse: Some words that end in an "L" sound are spelled "-el" ("novel," "level," "cancel"), and some are spelled "-le" ("little," "cable," "purple").

Warner Bros.
Not that Thunderdome stuck to the two-man rule too closely either.

The Stupid Reason:

Most words that end in "-el" used to have the stress carried on that last syllable (so "angel" used to be pronounced "ang-EL"). As the language evolved, those pronunciations slowly blended together, but we still clung to the old spellings for no reason other than tradition, which apparently doesn't count for pronunciation as well.

No, really: One of the most frustrating and counterintuitive quirks to our language exists just because. There's no practical reason, no aesthetic reason, no etymological quirk. It's just some leftover fat dangling off the side of our language like a syntactic appendix. The only use it has now is to help prospective employers distinguish between people who were able to take SAT prep courses and those who weren't, primarily so they can tell the latter that they're just not Waffle House material.

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"The proper spelling of 'rondel'? Right away, sir!"

"Colonel" Is Spelled Weird Because of the French

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The Crazy Rule:

"Colonel" probably has the weirdest spelling of any English word. The "c" and the last three letters are sort of OK. If they were dudes, you might not trust them alone with your wallet, but you wouldn't feel weird sitting next to them on the bus. But just what the hell is that "olo" doing there? That is a sketchy series of letters. That's like a half-naked clown standing outside a preschool at midnight. It has no business being there, and it's only more worrying if it does.

Well, maybe an oddly spelled word isn't quite that alarming.

The Stupid Reason:

The word "colonel" comes from the Italian word "colonnella," which means "little column." It mostly referred to the military officer in charge of a "little column company" and only occasionally doubled as an adorable slang term for a tiny penis. The word spread to France and became "colonelle." And then, as is inevitable with all expats, it slowly became corrupted by its time abroad. It finally ended up as the barely recognizable "coronel."

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Exactly the kind of crap you'd expect from the birthplace of the street mime.

When it was introduced to English, we got the corrupted spelling and pronunciation, and that's mostly fine. You can guess at the phonetics just looking at it. But when we switched over to the "proper" spelling, because the English are nothing if not proper, the old pronunciation still stuck. So now we've got a word that looks like "colonial," is pronounced like "kernel," was wrong across three generations in three different ways, and may or may not be dick slang (if it wasn't, it sure is now). You're a champ, colonel.

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"I Before E" and Other Stupid Spelling Rules Are Because of One War

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The Crazy Rule:

You know the rule: "i" before "e," except after "c." A rule that is immediately followed by a metric butt-ton of exceptions: "either," "neither," "weigh," "neighbor," "caffeine," "weird," "protein," "feisty," "conscience" ... and then approximately 10,000 more words. So it's less a rule than a thing that ... just happens, sometimes. Like a tornado.

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The major difference being that the spelling of "tornado" is pretty reasonable.

The Stupid Reason:

In the 11th century, English had developed its own standardized set of spelling conventions that had an almost perfectly phonemic orthography -- meaning that each letter had a specific sound it made, regardless of what word it appeared in or what other letters were around it. People went around saying things, and the things they said looked like the things you'd see on signs and whatnot. Truly, it was a boring utopia.

But a utopia nonetheless!

It was the golden age of argument-free games of Scrabble.

Then, in 1066, the Norman conquest happened. William the Conqueror invaded with an army of French, Norman, and Breton soldiers, who quickly established Latin and French as the standard languages throughout the British Isles. French and Latin words were absorbed into English like fried Twinkies in a county fair goer's stomach -- that is to say, poorly, and with much regret. "Seize" and "siege," for example: In French, those words (and those vowel combinations) have very different pronunciations. But that distinction didn't survive the migration to the new language, even though the spelling did. Now we write them totally differently but say them the same, because we're just giant wrecks here and nobody is coming to help us.

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"'Tis myne royale decree that the spellyng of 'Wednesday' shalt make no goddamn sense."

The problems continued: Norman scribes convinced English speakers to change "cwen" to "queen" and "cwic" to "quick," because, English being the language of the lower class, French speakers were the only ones who could afford any books. Naturally, those original spellings look stupid to you now, but that's only because you're not used to them -- if you're thinking in terms of logic and accessibility, why would you just start throwing "k"s and "q"s around like that? Someone's gonna get hurt. The "k" has those big sharp pointy arms, and that "q" may look soft and round, but it's clearly trying to hide some sort of little club behind its back. Don't you trust the bastard.

Related Reading: There are a ton of words you've been using wrong, including phase and faze. And if you've suspected the advent of the Internet has justified a few new words, we agree! We'll make room for those additions by cutting bullshit words like "panties" and "dollop".

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