The other day I confused the words "elicit" and "illicit" while letting my Facebook fans know about something unlawful I did. (Or provoked? Shit, now I'm not sure.) Naturally, when this error was pointed out to me, I flipped completely the fuck out. "You shut your dirty poop mouth!" I bellowed. "It's the words that are wrong, not me!" I pointed out, before thoughtfully adding, "AAIAIAIIAIAIEIEIIEIAIAIIII!" Over the remainder of the day, there was nary an object or abstract concept within sight that I didn't blame at least somewhat for this mistake, many of them earning sturdy kicks for their ineptitude.
The main target of my ire was of course the English language itself, my tormenting mistress, who has seemingly betrayed me yet again. How could a language beautiful enough to allow the creation of the phrase "ass spelunker" be so cruel as to allow different words to be pronounced the same? Doesn't she know how dumb I am?
And so, much as I do every day, I set to work proving why everyone but me was wrong. Surprisingly, this time I actually found at least a little evidence supporting my case: It turns out that, indeed, the English language is seriously fucked up. Here's why:
Throughout its history, the people of England, bless them, have been a little ... completely ... slutty ... about the variety and sheer number of words they've allowed to pass through their lips. What we now understand as modern English is concocted from a secret blend of herbs and languages, most notably German, French, Latin and Greek. And once England got into the habit of sending boats with guns to parts of the world with fewer guns, they began borrowing words from basically every other language on the planet.
"You there! Savage! Bring us a selection of your spices, vocabulary and venereal diseases!"
And seeing as German, French, Latin and Greek all have some pretty different ideas about how things should be done, the end result has left English spelling consistency more torn apart than a sackful of cats. Heck, there are massive spelling inconsistencies between words derived from the same root. For example, "discrete" and "discreet" are two different words that mean totally different things, which I don't think I've ever used correctly. The definition of each one is literally "the opposite of what Chris Bucholz intended." All because the fuckers both came from the same root, the Latin word "discretus," having taken different meandering paths to the present day, purely to wreck my day.
How would you pronounce the word "ghoti"? Did you say something like "goaty"? Like some kind of adjective describing an action performed in the manner of a goat?
Goaty: [adj] (-ier, -iest) 1. In the manner of a goat 2. In a manner that ruins everything. 3. While endlessly pooping a series of pellet-like turds, ruining everything.
But did you consider that "ghoti" could also be pronounced basically the same as "fish"? For example, if we:
Pronounce the "gh" the same as we do when we pronounce it in "tough"
Pronounce the "o" the same as we do when we pronounce it in "women"
Pronounce the "ti" the same as we do when we pronounce it in "nation"
If that seems contrived, try flipping the problem around. Look at an actual word, something like "scissors." Based on the way most people pronounce it, "scissors" has about 80 million valid spellings -- of which "scissors" is the most ridiculous.
You see, for every rule or guideline we have for how words are spelled or pronounced -- "'I' before 'E'" -- there are exceptions -- "except after 'C'" -- and exceptions to those exceptions -- "except in cases like 'weighing' your 'neighbor'." The rules can't be relied on at all, really, and spelling accurately becomes mostly a matter of experience, or more commonly, right-clicking red squiggly lines. When trying to spell a word, unless you've written it regularly and/or recently, you're shit out of luck without a dictionary. Even with one, you can get tripped up by homophones, real words that sound identical but mean different things -- see my "elicit"/"illicit" confusion.
The central problem here is that, much like a rampaging elephant or the sea, no one's in control of the English language. There's no central committee that meets in a big room decorated in an alphabet motif deciding how English words should be spelled. And although the very concept of a group of bureaucrats who determine the way we talk sounds kind of Orwellian, it turns out to be a pretty common thing. Basically every language other than English has some group officially in charge of it, groups that I imagine have some pretty crazy meetings.
But for English, the only people in charge of how words are spelled are the users, and as established, we're idiots. And if you've ever tried to get a bunch of idiots to agree on something, you'll know that consensus is pretty hard to reach, and the consensus that is reached isn't always the wisest choice.
But whether non-decisions made by a crowd of idiots are better than well meaning decisions made by lone idiots is debatable, when we see the impact of ...
I'm not (astoundingly) the first person to have noticed these spelling issues. In fact, people have been trying to reform English spelling for nearly as long as there's been English spelling. Typically these approaches have been to simplify vowel sounds, or to remove extra letters (e.g., "have" would become "hav"), or to just get rid of "Q" altogether. They're all well-meaning measures that would lead to some pretty crazy-looking writing:
Not a joke.
Now, if you don't see how an effort to fix spelling could make spelling even more complicated, I want you to, just for a moment, imagine you're a Canadian.
So now that you're a Canadian, I want you to imagine that your dictionary has been taken from you because of Socialism, and that you have to figure out the proper spelling for the word "defence"/"defense." This cannot be done -- until I looked it up for the purpose of writing this article, I had no idea which was right. It turns out that "defence" is the preferred English/Canadian spelling, and "defense" is the preferred American spelling. (Incidentally, an easy way to remember this is to think of American football fans, who, being Americans and masters of American English, would never, ever make a mistake when spelling the American version of "defense" ...)
Except when they do, all the time.
Where did this split between the two spellings come from? Well, it turns out that Americans used the "defence" version right up until about the early 20th century, when something caused them to change their minds:
This is a pretty justifiable switch, in truth; "defense" is probably derived from the Latin root "defensus," so it makes a bit more sense to spell it with the "S." Noah Webster, famous for the dictionary he made and the heartwarming 1980s sitcom it inspired, was a big advocate for spelling reform and probably advocated the "defence" -> "defense" switch on this basis.
But, justified or not, can you see how confusing this is as a hypothetical Canadian? Depending on the website or newspaper or book you read, there are two different, totally valid, totally reasonable and defensible spellings of a word. Heck, even if you're a well-read American -- I'm confident you exist -- you'll have seen both these spellings when you read foreign websites. And all because 100 years ago some asshole tried to fix a problem and other assholes didn't listen.
Let's take another example where you don't even have to pretend to be Canadian. let's look at, oh, let's say, the word "scissoring."
"Scissoring" doesn't have a "C" sound in it, does it? In fact, it probably used to be spelled "sissouring" or something similar. But some time around the 16th or 17th century, some dink decided to put the "C" back in to re-link it to its Latin root -- "scindere" -- which, whoops, turned out to not be "scissoring"'s Latin root at all. The spelling actually got harder because someone fucked with it!
So there you go, Internet. Not only do you now have a ready-built excuse when someone accuses you of spelling things wrong, but you've now got something fun to talk about while scissoring. You're welcome.
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