Monday, 23 February 2015

Pyjamas or Pajamas?

This word came into English from Urdu, although its roots are in the Persian pāy 'leg' + jāma 'clothing'.  Its earliest uses in English refer to loose draw-string trousers made of cotton or silk, worn in some Middle Eastern and Asian countries.  The word first appeared in English in the early 19th century in a range of spelling forms, including such exotics as paunjammahs, paejamus, paijamahs, peijammahs, pigammahs; later in the 19th century the modern forms pyjamas and pajamas began to appear, along with pyjammas, which is still common today.  The -s was added to the word by comparison with words like trousers and drawers; the singular forms pajama and pyjama are sometimes found, especially in compounds like pyjama-party, or pyjama-top.  Other examples recorded in the early 20th century include pie-jim-jams - which survives today as jim-jams - and a shortened form: pyjams, used by John Betjeman in Summoned by Bells (1960).  Today pyjamas is the standard spelling in UK English and pajamas is the standard US spelling. 

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Schedule: "skedule" or "shedule"?

The difference between these two pronunciations comes down to nationality - "skedule" is the US pronunciation and "shedule" is usual in British English.  But why should there be this difference, and which one is "correct"?  If we look back at the word's etymology, we find the surprising answer that neither represents the word's earliest pronunciation in English. 

The word schedule was borrowed from the Old French word cedule in the 15th century; its earliest uses were spelled cedule or sedule, indicating that it was pronounced "sedule" as in French.  The spellings scedule and schedule began to appear in the 16th century, in imitation of the spelling of Latin schedula 'slip of paper'.  By the middle of the 17th century schedule had become established as the standard spelling, although it continued to be pronounced "sedule" up to the 19th century.  In the 19th century the "shedule" pronunciation was adopted, although some dictionaries noted that the word's ultimate origins in the Greek word skhedē 'strip of papyrus' would imply a "skedule" pronunciation. This was the pronunciation preferred by Noah Webster in his American Dictionary of the English Language (1828), who thought it should follow words like scheme; the authority of Webster's Dictionary led to the widespread adoption of "skedule" in US usage.  

Elicit or Illicit?

Despite their similar pronunciations and spellings, these are in fact completely different words with very different uses and meanings. The word elicit is from Latin elicere 'to draw forth', itself formed from ex- 'out' + lacere 'to entice or deceive'.

Illicit was introduced into English in the 17th century from French illicite, which is from the Latin illicitus. This Latin word was formed by adding the negative prefix in- to the past participle of licere 'to be allowed', so that illicitus means 'not allowed'.

Given these differences, the two words should be easily distinguished: elicit is a verb meaning 'draw forth, evoke' and illicit is an adjective meaning 'not allowed, forbidden':

The comment elicited a strong response
The government is cracking down on the use of illicit drugs

Despite this simple distinction, even reputable publications can confuse the two words. In 2010 the British Medical Journal included an editorial on 'Evidence based policy for elicit drugs'! The opposite mistake crept past The Guardian editorial team in an article published in 2002, which contained the phrase 'illicit a response', prompting a correction in 'near homophone corner'.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

bated breath or baited breath?

The verb bate has the sense of ‘decrease, lessen’, and in the phrase ‘bate one’s breath’ it describes holding back or restraining one’s breathing.  The idea behind the phrase is that people in a state of extreme excitement appear to hold their breath, or even to have stopped breathing.  Bate is a reduced, or ‘aphetic’, form of the more common verb abate, derived from the French verb abattre ‘to knock down’; if you think of a storm abating, or becoming still, then you will have less trouble remembering how to spell ‘bated breath’.  This word is also the root of abattoir, a place where animals are 'knocked-down' – a rather genteel replacement of the earlier, and somewhat more graphic term, slaughterhouse.

The first recorded user of the phrase is Shakespeare, in The Merchant of Venice, where Shylock says to Antonio: “Shall I bend low and, in a bondman’s key, / With bated breath and whisp’ring humbleness, / Say this ”.  Because bated is chiefly used today in this single expression, there’s a tendency for speakers to associate it with the more common word baited, even though there is no obvious semantic link.  The verb bait is related to bite, and refers to anglers baiting a hook to catch a fish, as well as deliberately harassing or persecuting someone.  To be ‘baited’, therefore, is to be set with a bait, or to be tormented.  As such the phrase baited breath makes little sense.  This doesn’t stop people using it, of course.  There are 275 instances of baited breath in the Oxford Corpus, compared to 598 occurrences of the correct spelling bated breath.  According to the Corpus, the misspelling is particularly rife on unedited blogs and in newspapers, although it is also found in published fiction.  It even turns up in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: ‘Glaring suspiciously at Ron, Professor McGonagall pushed the portrait back open and went outside. The whole common room listened with baited breath’.

Monday, 9 February 2015

asterisk or asterix?

The origins of this little star-shaped mark lie in the Greek word asteriskos, the diminutive form of aster ‘star’ (think of asteroid and astronaut), and so it literally means ‘little star’.  Just as the verb ask is pronounced axe in some American dialects, so the final “sk” is frequently pronounced “ks”, leading to the corresponding misspelling of this word as if it were the cartoon character Asterix the Gaul.  Use of this erroneous spelling can produce some unusual images, such as that conjured up by The Guardian’s report on the surprising relegation of Barcelona footballing legend Lionel Messi to the bench for an important match: ‘When the official list was released, Messi’s name, like that of Adriano and Pedro, was followed by an asterix, denoting a player who had not yet been given the all-clear by medical staff’.  Perhaps the Barcelona manager decided that not even Lionel Messi was as useful as a Gaulish warrior pumped full of magic potion, although I suspect that Asterix would have fallen foul of UEFA’s doping laws.