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Why the Letter 'B' Is Deeply in 'Debt'

Rob Kyff on

Have you ever wondered why we don't pronounce the "b" in debt, the "c" in indict, the "p" in receipt or the "s" in island?

Blame it on 17th-century British scholars.

During the 1600s, England's intellectuals became besotted with classical languages. These bespectacled, bearded dons began speaking Latin, wearing laurel wreaths and chanting "Toga! Toga! Toga!" at academic conferences.

Taking this obsession even further, they changed the spelling of many English words borrowed from French in order to reflect their "purer" Latin roots. But the common folk, as farmers, farriers and fishmongers tend to do, simply ignored these academic spellings and continued to pronounce the words the same way they always had.

Thus the scholars' ham-handed neoclassical "repairs" littered English with booby traps -- silent letters that remain the bane of anyone who tries to speak or spell these Latinized English words to this day.

A classic example is "debt." English had acquired the French word "dette" after the Norman Conquest (in exchange for a verb and a participle to be named later). But the 17th-century neoclassicists, seeking to indicate the word's Latin root, "debitum," respelled it as "debt."

Similarly, they crowbarred a "p" into "receite" to produce "receipt" (from the Latin "receptus"), an "h" into "ancre" to generate "anchor" (from the Latin "anchiora"), and a "b" into "doute" to create "doubt" (from the Latin "dubitare"), thus raising "doubt" in more ways than one.

 

Moreover, believing that the Latin origins of the English words "indite," "verdit" and "perfet" had been tragically obscured by their French spellings, these linguistic revisionists recast these words as "indict" (from the Latin "indictare"), "verdict" (from "dictum") and "perfect" (from "perfectus").

One of their silliest concoctions was "comptroller," a Latinized version of "conterroller," meaning "a person who controls money." Mistakenly assuming that the "cont" in "conterroller" was supposed to be "count," a word derived from the Latin "computare," they inserted a "p" to create "comptroller," which we nevertheless still pronounce as "controller."

Another Roman candle that fizzled is "island." The neoclassicists inserted an "s" into the Middle English word "iland" to restore its supposed Latin root, "insula." There was only one problem: "iland" comes, not from Latin, but from the Old English "igland."

There'll always be an "igland" -- and well-intentioned meddlers with the English language.

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Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. His book, "Mark My Words," is available for $9.99 on Amazon.com. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to WordGuy@aol.com or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.


Copyright 2024 Creators Syndicate Inc.

 

 

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