Why do we keep misspelling these words?

Pharoah or pharaoh? Accomodation or accommodation? Recieve or receive?

According to the Oxford English Corpus, these are some of the most commonly misspelt words in the English language. But is there a reason why? Actually, there could be many.

English spelling has a long history of invasion, theft, and general chaos. There are 205 different ways to write just 44 sounds. So let’s take a look at these words, and what they reveal about our language.

Pharoah or pharaoh?

The correct spelling is pharaoh. The word comes from Egyptian word Pr-'o meaning ‘great house’. It was adopted way back in Anglo-Saxon times, coming to English via Hebrew, Greek and then Latin - so this particular example of a borrowing underwent years of variation, and it’s still not any easier to spell.

There can be a few reasons why a language might borrow words - though the ‘borrowing’ is metaphorical as the words are often kept. For example, following the Norman conquest of England in 1066, French became the favoured language of the upper classes. If a language is prestigious in a given community, more words will be borrowed from that language (e.g. fruit comes from French; the Old English word was waestm).

Another reason is necessity: when a name is needed for a new concept, invention or product, such as chocolate. A lot of borrowings are modern, but have become so conventional to English that you might not guess they weren’t English words at all. Examples include guitar, pyjamas and landscape.

Necessity borrowings usually ‘look’ similar across languages (e.g. the word sugar is Zucker in German). But the clue is still in the spelling: as every loanword comes from a language that may have a different sound system, English spelling rules might not apply - see how wrong it looks if we were to spell it shugger.

You just have to learn them!

Acommodation or Accommodation?

Accommodation is two 'c's, two 'm's - though it might not have been before it was in print.

Following the invention of the printing press, you would think English spelling would start becoming consistent. On the contrary: print-makers of Britain were usually from Belgium, Germany or Netherlands as William Caxton had brought the printing press over from Brugge in 1476 - and needed the expertise of people already using them.

There was no uniform spelling across the presses and, as printer-makers were paid by the line, they may as well have added a few silent letters here and there to fill out the page.

Gost became ghost (in Dutch/Flemish, the word in medieval times was gheest, so maybe that’s why the ‘h’ was added) and unnecessary double consonants were all the rage.

On top of this, spelling reform in Caxton's time lead to silent letters in words such as debt (it used to be dette) to make them look more like the Latin root (debitum). Classy, but confusing.

Books could be printed en masse and more people could afford them - but no one could email in to complain about the typos, so spelling still had a long way to go before standardisation.

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Recieve or receive?

In this case, the dreaded I before E except after C rule rings true - the correct spelling is receive.

In the 1400s, English slowly began to regain prestige, but people (the upper classes particularly) still wrote in French or Latin. Variants of Old English words started appearing, as scribes used French spelling conventions on Old English words.

This can be seen in the replacement of the Old English spelling 'cw' for the French 'qu' in words such as queen, following the introduction of other French borrowings such as quality or quiet. This is also why a 'c' can make an 's' sound (e.g. Old English mys to mice), why humour has a 'u', and why we don't pronounce the 'h' in honour.

And spelling just got madder from there. The I before E except after C pattern gradually materialised, as phonetic words like beleve and receve became believe and receive. However, the misleading rhyme was made up much later by English Victorians, who hadn't got the memo about caffeine - so really, this one’s on them.

It's not laziness

You’ve probably heard it before - people who can’t spell are lazy/illiterate/stupid.

It's simply not true; spelling mostly comes down to memory. A study from Johns Hopkins University showed that stroke victims who have long-term memory damage can often recall a word and its meaning, but not how to spell it - especially if it's not phonetic. There are so many rules and exceptions to English spelling that it's a wonder anyone gets it right.

Spelling simply comes with practice and there is no link between spelling and intelligence, so give yourself a break if there’s a few words that never look right to you.

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