English spelling is complicated and History will tell us ‘why?’ Borrowing from other languages, pronunciation changes over time, and peculiarities in the evolution of printing standards all played a role in getting us to where we are today. The way a word is spelled tells a part of its history. But for a few words, the spelling gets the history totally wrong.
Spelling varied a lot during the early days of printing. But in the 16th century, as a standard, people began to look to Latin and Greek for spelling inspiration. Because of this, adding a silent letter became a trend. For example, the word debt, which had been spelled dette ever since it had been borrowed from French that way, was gussied up with a silent b, the better to show its ultimate derivation from Latin debitum.
The changes, though fussy and unnecessary, did reflect distant historical roots. But sometimes, they didn’t. Here are five weird spellings that came about through etymological mistakes.
Where did that sc in scissors come from?
Back in the days we spell it sissors or sizars. The classicizers of the 1500s thought the word went back to Latin scindere, to split, but it actually came from the French word cisorium, “cutting implement.” The same assumption turned sithe intoscythe.
The word is originally spelled iland. But in order to link to Latin insula, an unnecessary s was added. The thing is, island did not come from insula, but from the Old English íglund.
Ache is from an Old English verb acan, which perhaps metaphoric use of earlier untested sense “drive, impel”. The spelling was changed to ache because they mistakenly belief that it is related to the Greek akhos (grief, pain).
In Old English the past tense of can did not have an l in it, but should and would (as past tenses of shall and will) did. The l was stuck into could in the 15th century on analogy with the other two.
When English borrowed soverain from French it had no g. The word was formed after Latinsuperanus, “highest one” (from super, “above”). The word reign, however, coming from Latinregnare, did have a g in it, and it very easily made its way into sovereign.