Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Sulphur or Sulfur

This dilemma emerged in a tutorial this week where we were discussing the correct spelling of the word.  Historically sulphur has been the typical form in British English, while sulfur is usual in American English, having emerged as a variant spelling among chemists in the 1920s.  The word was borrowed into English from a French word sufere during the medieval period, which in turn was adopted from Latin, where the word was spelled both sulphur and sulfur.  Usually English words spelled with <ph> are derived from Greek, where the <ph> represents the Greek letter ‘phi’, but in this case the ultimate source of the word is Arabic. 
This might all seem pretty straightforward; the reason for the confusion in our class concerned the question of the correct spelling of the word in the international chemical industry.  One student reported that a friend had told him that the only acceptable spelling of the word among chemists was now sulfur.  To settle the debate, another class member texted her father, who conveniently happens to be a nuclear physicist, who reported that he continues to use the spelling sulphur.  The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry did indeed officially adopt the sulfur spelling in 1990; in 1992 the Royal Society of Chemistry followed suit, issuing a press release adopting sulfur as the official international nomenclature for atomic element 16.  But while this might seem to settle the case once and for all, it’s clear from our discussion that not all practising scientists have adopted the spelling change.  This is a good example of the difficulties of reforming established spellings, even in a relatively defined group of users.  One solution would be to drop the word completely, in favour of the much more evocative Germanic equivalent brimstone (literally ‘burning stone’).

Friday, 8 February 2013


This might seem a pretty straightforward word to spell, but there is the potential for confusion with a similar word role.  The two words descend from a single Latin word rotulus, meaning a small wheel.  The earliest uses of the word roll in English refer to the scrolls upon which medieval records were written.  Because these scrolls could be wound up, like turning a wheel, the word roll was used to describe them.  From this, the sense of a list or register developed, since these were written on scrolls of this kind.  This is the origin of the phrase electoral roll, which should not therefore be spelled electoral role.

The spelling role is now used for a separate word which refers to an actor’s part in a play, or a person’s lot in life.  This is a specialised sense of the word roll, adopted because actors’ parts were originally written on scrolls that could be rolled up.   The earliest spellings of this word were role, rowle; the spelling rôle, modelled on the French spelling of the word, was first adopted in the eighteenth century.  Given that role and roll are etymologically the same word, it would be possible to spell them both roll.  But, given that actors no longer read from scrolls, people no longer see the connection; to spell the two words identically would be to lose a distinction that many today find useful.

But, should this word be spelled role or rôle?  As long ago as 1926, Henry Fowler argued that, given that there was no separate word role from which rôle needed to be distinguished, the circumflex accent might as well be abandoned.  But, while OED spells its headword as role, Chambers dictionary offers both alternatives.  Discussion forums record lively debates concerning the correct spelling of the word, with some members reporting a tendency to prefer rôle when writing by hand and role when typing.  For some contributors the accent is felt to give the word an ‘illustrious’ appearance, for others it lends the word an archaic feel; for some it is a way to look smart, while others consider it pretentious.  Given the risks of appearing out of touch and affected, perhaps it’s safest to stick to role (but not roll)!