Often, the English language appears to have been invented by a malicious entity. But although Noah Webster—the American lexicographer who complicated things, rather than simplifying them, by advocating for changes in spelling rules to differentiate American English from its British English parent—can take some of the blame, the idiosyncrasies of both forms of English are the result of various natural evolutionary factors, primarily the fact that English has borrowed heavily from the architecture of other languages. This post explores three categories of spelling issues that writers of English confront.
Adding -e to Convert Nouns to Verbs
In a small class of words derive from Old English, an e is appended to a noun to form a verb. Thus, the word for a receptacle or vessel for immersing a person or an object in water, as well as associated senses, is bath, but a person is said to bathe. Likewise, we refer to the air one takes in one’s mouth or nose during respiration as breath, but when we describe the act of respiration, we use the term breathe.
Cloth is the word for material used to make garments, but we clothe ourselves when we dress. A sheath is a cover or case, but when we place something in the sheath, we use the word sheathe to describe the action. Meanwhile, a wreath is a circular arrangement of vegetation used as decoration or to denote bestowal of an honor, while wreathe means “shape into a wreath” in literal and figurative senses. And teeth are bonelike appendages in animals’ mouths, while teethe refers to the emergence of these processes from the gums.
One complication in this class is that although swath is the spelling of the noun referring to a row of vegetation cut down (and similar senses), swathe means “something used to bind or wrap” as well as functioning as a verb referring to the act of binding or wrapping.
Although loath is an adjective, not a noun, and it and loathe have different meanings (loath means “reluctant” and to loathe is to despise or hate), writers should recognize that the verb follows the same form as the others mentioned here. Similarly, sooth and soothe, though their status as cognates is not immediately apparent, follow this rule. (Sooth is an archaic word meaning “true” or “truth”—and is the root of forsooth, an affected synonym for indeed with the implication of contempt or doubt—while to soothe is to calm or relieve; the link is that the latter word originally meant “verify.”)
Note that in the -ing forms of these words, the -e is omitted even in verb form: bathing, breathing, clothing, sheathing, teething, wreathing, loathing, soothing.
Adding -k Before -ing and -y Endings After -c
For a few words ending in -c, when the word is converted to an -ing form (whether functioning as a noun or a verb) or an adjectival -y form, a -k is inserted to signal that the c sound remains hard (as in case) rather than soft (as in cell). These words include picnic (picnicking, meaning “participating in an outdoor meal,” often one served atop a blanket placed on the ground), frolic (frolicking, meaning “amusing oneself or acting playfully”), mimic (mimicking, meaning “imitating, resembling, or simulating”), politic (politicking, meaning “engaging in political activity or discussion”), colic (colicky, meaning “acting irritably or experiencing abdominal pain”), traffic (trafficking, meaning “dealing or trading, or engaging in an activity”), garlic (garlicky, meaning “smelling or tasting like or reminiscent of the scent or taste of garlic”), and panic (panicky, meaning “agitated or anxious”).
Acknowledgment and Judgment
This very exclusive club of annoyingly spelled words is also not as well known as it should be. Although British English retains the original spellings acknowledgement and judgement, writers in the United States should know that the American English forms omit the penultimate e, even though its elision erroneously implies a hard pronunciation of g (as in give, as opposed to gel). Note, however, that no other words with the suffix -ment, including achievement, amusement, and many others, adhere to this distinction.