Thursday, 30 January 2014

homogenous or homogeneous?

The correct spelling of this word, meaning ‘of the same kind, nature or character’, is homogeneous.  The variant spelling homogenous is labelled erroneous by the OED, although it does cite numerous instances dating back to 1956.  The OED entry suggests that the incorrect spelling is the result of the common tendency to pronounce the word this way, perhaps owing to the influence of the verb homogenize; another possible influence is the pronunciation of words like dangerous and ludicrous.
That explanation may seem nice and straightforward, but it isn’t quite so simple since there is a separate word which is legitimately spelled homogenous, meaning ‘sharing a common descent or origin’.  This word was first used in the 1870s in the field of evolutionary biology and remains a technical term in comparative anatomy.  It was used by Charles Darwin in the Origin of Species, but that doesn’t mean much since Darwin was a terrible speller.  He wrote an entire essay on the Coral Islands, and managed to misspell them as the Corall Islands throughout.
An article in The Guardian reporting Kevin McCloud’s ‘antidote to homogenous housing’ prompted a number of readers to write in, pointing out that the correct spelling of this word should be homogeneousThe Guardian defended its spelling, explaining that it was taken directly from the press release, and citing its inclusion in the Collins dictionary.  The editor’s certainty didn’t last long.  Shortly afterwards, the headline was changed to read ‘homogeneous housing’, and the comments miraculously disappeared.  This doesn’t mean that the paper has learned from the lesson – the erroneous  spelling appeared in Tuesday’s Comment is Free column.  None of the 719 comments pointed out the mistake, but perhaps this would contravene the ethos of the column.  But, since some of the comments were censored, it may be that The Guardian editors suppressed them to spare their blushes. 
            Many people, confused as to which is the correct spelling of this word, seek clarification from online discussion forums.  But the answers they get are often incorrect or inconsistent.  One reply claims that homogeneous is British and homogenous American, comparing aluminium/aluminum and speciality/specialty.  Another response disputes this explanation, insisting that both are acceptable in British English, with no distinction of meaning.  If you want to spell this word correctly, the rule is simple: unless you’re an evolutionary biologist, always spell it homogeneous.
Spelling Trouble relaxes after a tough day in the lab

Monday, 6 January 2014



The name for this vegetable derives from the Latin word cucumer; this spelling is found in some of the earliest appearances of the word in Middle English.  Spellings such as cocomber and cucumbre, common in the 16th century, show the influence of the medieval French form cocombre (the ancestor of modern French concombre).  In the 17th and 18th centuries, the pronunciation “cow-cumber” became popular, and the word began to be spelled cowcumber accordingly.  In the 19th century, this pronunciation fell out fashion and became associated with other non-standard markers, such as aitch-dropping, as evidence of illiteracy, as in Charles Dickens’s portrayal of Mrs Gamp’s speech in Martin Chuzzlewit: ‘In case there should be such a thing as a cowcumber in the ‘ouse, will you be so kind as bring it, for I’m rather partial to ‘em, and they does a world of good in a sick room’.   

 The view that cucumbers are good for your health dates back to Roman times; according to Pliny, the emperor Tiberius was advised to partake of a daily cucumber by his physicians – apparently a cucumber a day kept the doctor away.  But not everyone has been persuaded by the vegetable’s health benefits.  Dr Johnson approvingly cited the view of English physicians that ‘a cucumber should be well sliced, and dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out, as good for nothing’.  Samuel Pepys would no doubt have concurred; an entry in his diary for 22 August 1663 records the demise of one Mr Newburne, who apparently died from eating ‘cowcumbers’. Few people today write cowcumber for cucumber; cucumer, however, is a common error, presumably prompted by a tendency to drop the “b” sound in speech.  Cookery sites on the internet offer numerous recipes involving cucumers – both the spelling and the dishes would have delighted the emperor Tiberius; Dr Johnson, who used our modern spelling cucumber in his Dictionary (1755), would have disapproved of both.