Caesar Sat on the Dais

By Maeve Maddox

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The words “Caesar” and “dais” are not exactly everyday words, but when they do appear in stories or news items, they are often misspelled.

The problem with Caesar is that the English pronunciation is /see zer/ so the English speaker wants to put the “e” directly after the “C.” I learned how to spell it when I took high school Latin. I liked writing the AE as a digraph (two letters written as one). My Latin teacher didn’t mind, but my English teacher hated it. Indeed, my love of the joined AE influenced my adoption of the name “Maeve.”

The error with dais is to reverse the vowels. I first encountered dais in stories about King Arthur. At every feast, Arthur and Guinevere were “seated on a daïs.”

English doesn’t generally make use of accents, but with a few words, like dais, the diaeresis (two dots over the letter), is an aid to pronunciation since it tells the reader that the second vowel begins a new syllable:

daïs, a platform raised usually above the floor of a hall or large room to give distinction or prominence to those occupying it

coëval, of the same or equal age or antiquity

naïve, marked by simplicity

Boëthius, author of Consolation of Philosophy

Charlotte Brontë, author of Jane Eyre

Zoë, popular female name from Greek, meaning “life giving”

Bettë Davis (1908-1989), liberated woman who created a new kind of screen heroine.

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10 Responses to “Caesar Sat on the Dais”

  • Alicia Harry

    Thank you so much for this tip. I was beginning to wonder if I had entered a parallel universe where nobody had ever heard of using the diaeresis in spelling the word “naïve”.

    My spell-check is telling me that I’m wrong, but I know better.

  • dailytri

    As I’ve discovered in my years of editing and writing, some people just have a sense of spelling about them. Others clearly do not. Invariably, though, people who read frequently tend to be better spellers and grammarians. Imagine that?!

  • Lela Davidson

    Ooh la la. So much to learn, so little time! I will continue to study and learn from the best! (Please don’t check my own writing too carefully.) Eek, was that grammatically correct?

  • Geoff Foster

    Which do you recommend, cooperate, co-operate, or coöperate?

    I know that there are people who think of the diaeresis as an affectation, so it’s pleasant to use it sometimes and score a couple of points.

  • Geoff Foster

    An afterthought:
    I learned Latin at school in England (in the forties and fifties) in an era when there had been a movement towards the pronunciation that rendered “Veni, vidi, vici”, as “wenny, weedy, weechy”, and “Caesar” as “Kaisar”, so that has left its mark on me.

    But, as a bonus, I can always remember how to spell “necessary”, because of it’s derivation from “necesse” (though why I need an intermediate step is a puzzle!)

  • Geoff Foster

    Another afterthought:

    Sorry about “it’s” in my last comment — I don’t know what got into me!

  • Maeve

    Actually, that’s how I remember to put the ae in Caesar! The same pronunciation was being taught in Hot Springs, Arkansas in the Fifties.

    By the way, Wheelock’s Latin, still in use, gives the same pronunciations: c = /k/ as in cat;
    ae= /A/ as in aisle;
    v = /w/ as English w.

  • Maeve

    Re: “cooperate, co-operate, or coöperate”

    Since “co” is a common English prefix, I write co-operate. I don’t write cooperate because I balk at having two o’s with different pronunciations run together. (The spelling oo in a word like Cooper is the single phonogram oo and not two letter o’s.)

    I would not write coöperate because, while I think the diaeresis is appropriate in more or less exotic words like Zoë and naïve, in the common word “co-operate,” its use seems to me unnecessary and, perhaps, affected.

  • Suz

    Could you please tell me which is correct?

    Cancelled or Canceled
    Cancell or Cancel?

  • Maeve

    “Cancelled” is British spelling; “canceled” American. I’m prefer the double letters in words like this, only to be told by my spell checker that I’ve mispelled them. The single l is a fairly recent Americanized spelling.

    “Cancell” is not correct on either side of the Atlantic. Write “cancel.”

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