Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Swath or swathe?


Today’s Guardian newspaper has an article alerting its readers to the threat of smog, which begins: ‘People across large swaths of England and Wales have been put on high alert over severe levels of air pollution smothering the south coast and several major cities’.  The spelling swath stood out to me – I would spell this word swathe.  Checking the paper’s Style Guide confirmed that this is indeed the paper’s preferred spelling for this word, which refers to a broad strip of land – technically the amount of land that can be covered in one swing of a scythe.  This spelling is etymologically justified, since the word descends from Old English swæþ, with a short vowel.  But since the sixteenth century this word has been pronounced with a long vowel, and spelled accordingly; early spellings include swaithe, sweath and swathe.  Most modern dictionaries prefer swathe: Oxford Dictionaries online has swathe and labels swath ‘chiefly N. American’.  This is endorsed by the American Merriam-Webster dictionary, which spells this word swath.  Curiously, R.W. Burchfield’s third edition of H.W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1996) gives only the swath spelling; even more curiously, he claims that it is pronounced “sworth” (as if it rhymes with southern British “fourth”).  Looking back to the original edition of Modern English Usage (1926), we find that Fowler was uncharacteristically liberal, allowing either swath or swathe, and tolerating both the “sworth” and “swaithe” pronunciations, as well as a third one with a short “o”: “swoth”. 
As is often the way when consulting dictionaries and usage guides, things are not much clearer than when I began.  Both spellings swath and swathe are clearly acceptable, but swathe seems the more common in British usage.  Searching The Guardian online reveals that this is true of that paper too.  Despite its Style Guide’s restriction of swathe to the word for strips of material in which something is wrapped, or swathed (like a baby in swaddling clothes), this spelling is frequently used in place of swath, as in this headline from 2010: ‘Public spending axe to cut swathe through private sector’.  Although this spelling may be etymologically justified, it should properly be a spending scythe rather than an axe.