Wednesday, 18 December 2013


The spelling of this word conceals its origins in the French word chatepelose: a combination of the words chat ‘cat’ and pelose ‘hairy’.  Etymologically, therefore, a caterpillar is a hairy cat.  The word is first recorded in English in the 15th century, with the spelling catyrpel; in the 16th century it began to be written catirpiller and catterpiller, probably owing to a false association with the word piller meaning ‘plunderer’ or ‘ravager’.  Since caterpillars ravage leaves and plants, this may have seemed an appropriate way to refer to them, especially by frustrated gardeners.  As a consequence, the two words, caterpillar and piller, became synonymous; this helps to explain otherwise puzzling references, such as Hugh Latimer’s warning, in a sermon of 1552, against ‘covetous persons, extorcioners, oppressours, catirpillers, userers’.  Either that, or Latimer really disliked caterpillars.

Following this logic, the modern spelling of this word ought to be caterpiller rather than caterpillar.  But, as so often with English spelling, the fault lies with Dr Johnson, who employed a rare variant spelling caterpillar for the headword in his Dictionary of the English Language (1755), ignoring the fact that it was consistently spelled caterpiller in the quotations he included.  Johnson’s endorsement of the spelling led to its widespread adoption, causing it to become accepted as the standard spelling today.  However, there are those who prefer to stick rigidly to the earlier spelling.  The website of St Martin’s Academy Chester advertises its Very Hungry Caterpiller Day; the Wild Ryedale website offers updates concerning the Mullien Moth Caterpiller; the Landscape Britain website shifts randomly between caterpillar and caterpiller.  Michael K. Brown’s book The Caterpiller’s Hat proudly vaunts the misspelling in its title.  One anonymous questioner posted the following query to the forum: ‘How long does it take for a caterpiller to turn into a butterflie’; his revival of archaic spellings for both caterpillar and butterfly suggests either a laudable commitment to the revival of archaic spellings, or a poor grasp of modern spelling conventions.

Monday, 6 May 2013

Cord or Chord?

There are two words here, though their spellings are easily confused.  The word for a rope or thick string is spelled cord, while the musical term describing the simultaneous combination of notes is spelled chord.  This may seem quite straightforward and uncontroversial, but it’s interesting to observe that this distribution of the two spellings is unetymological.  The word we now spell cord is a borrowing of the French word corde, ‘string, rope’, which itself is derived from the Latin chorda.  It is first recorded in English in the 15th century in the spelling cord; however, in the 16th century it was respelled chord to reflect its Latin origins.  This spelling remained common in the 17th and 18th centuries; it has survived into modern usage in certain specialised senses, such as ‘that touched a chord’, and in the name of the musical instrument harpsichord.
Despite its spelling, the musical term chord is unrelated to Latin chorda; it derives from accord in the sense ‘bring into harmony’.The musical term first appeared in English in the 15th century, when it was spelled corde; this word survives in the spelling of accordion.  In the 16th century it was confused with the word corde, ‘string, rope’, and subjected to the same change in spelling, giving us the word chord.  So, while the spelling of these two words might appear straightforward, their histories show that the spellings are, etymologically-speaking, the wrong way round.  Chord should refer to the rope, and the musical term should be cord.  While this confusing history may appear to have been straightened out in today’s usage, it has left some vestiges of uncertainty.  Should it be ‘vocal chords’ or ‘vocal cords’ for instance?  The usual spelling today is vocal cords, but it’s common to find vocal chord.  This is frequently stigmatised as a folk-etymological spelling, implying confusion with the musical sense of chord, but it’s actually a genuine survivor of the older spelling, first recorded in the 18th century. 

Friday, 12 April 2013


The correct spelling of this word is espresso, deriving from the Italian cafè espresso ‘pressed-out coffee’.  However, it is regularly assimilated to the more common English word express, giving the incorrect, yet increasingly frequent, spelling expresso.  This spelling is now sufficiently common to have been accepted as a variant in a number of dictionaries.  Merriam-Webster labels it a ‘variant of espresso’, much to the chagrin of many of its readers.  Comments added to the online entry voice an outraged hostility to the acceptance of this incorrect spelling.  One commentator is saddened that the spelling is common enough to be adopted by the dictionary, while another refuses to accept it: ‘No, it’s simply and only ESPRESSO! only a variant because the clueless masses have used it so much its nearly been accepted as an alternative spelling!’.  (Note the inevitable misspelling of it’s!)  For most opponents of expresso it is simply a badge of stupidity:  Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post considers expresso the ‘idiot’s coffee-bar order’.  

Spelling Trouble enjoys a coffee with friends

In response to a question about the correct spelling and pronunciation of this word on a bulletin board, most contributors oppose the expresso spelling.  For one it is ‘like nails on a chalkboard’; for another there is no debate: ‘It’s espresso. It just is. Go to Italy.’  While this may seem a logical and incontrovertible argument, it’s worth recalling that many foreign words in English have not preserved their original spellings.  Supporters of the expresso spelling note that in French the word is spelled express, while one hazards the more dubious suggestion that drinking expresso makes you go faster!  This folk etymological justification of the expresso spelling by associating it with speed lies behind one of the definitions offered by Urban Dictionary, which describes it as ‘any fancy coffee’ ordered as a take-away.  The association with quick service implied by the expresso spelling is deliberately invoked by owners of the ‘Speedy Expresso’ café.  Various establishments play on the association with the verb express, encouraging their customers to expresso themselves.  Whatever we might think of these rather tortuous puns, it is evident that the opportunities the expresso spelling allows us to associate it with other genuine English words means that this spelling error is here to stay.