Ye Olde Spelling Laziness


Have you ever wondered about the old-fashioned “ye” in shop signs?  It was a lazy printer’s solution to saving space for “th”, and should be pronounced as “the”, not “yee”!  The Old English character “y” was a graphic alteration of the Germanic rune “Þ” (which came over with the Viking raiders and the Norman King Canute and his rabble, but that’s another story).  When English printing typefaces couldn’t supply the right kind of “P” they substituted the “Y” (close enough, right?).  That practice continued into the 18th century, when it dropped out of use.  By the 19th century it was revived as a deliberate antiquarianism – to give a shop a pedigree, so to speak (read “marketing scam”), and soon came to be mocked because of it.  And now we think of it as the quaint way they used to write…

For a short, fun video on the topic, click on Ye Olde Web link, below.



Filed under History, Humor, Mistranslations, Nuts & Bolts, Translations

7 responses to “Ye Olde Spelling Laziness

  1. This is a bit like Dalzell. Apparently the Scottish name Dalzell is really Dalghell. The letter representing the gh was like an old-fashioned z (a bit like a modern 3) and this was then misinterpreted as a z. As I’m sure you know from having lived in the Land o’ Cakes, Dalzell is usually pronounced as Dyell.

  2. I’ve never actually heard of these names! The closest I’ve seen is Dalyell, and I would say it’s probably a lowland name, rather than a highland name (the Dal related to “dale” or “valley”?). Am I right in assuming that the spelling change from gh to z was an anglecisation of a Gaelic spelling?

  3. The name is apparently Gaelic but it’s in the Lowlands (Lanarkshire) and it seems that this mangling of the spelling happened in the Scots (Lallans) language and not in Gaelic. There is another one which is more common, Menzies, which is pronounced Mingis but spelt with a z for the same reasons. Hence the Scots limerick:

    There wis a young lassie named Menzies,
    That asked her aunt whit this thenzies.
    Said her aunt wi a gasp,
    “Ma dear, it’s a wasp,
    An you’re haudin the end whaur the stenzies!”

  4. And yet that’s how a language evolves over time; I know a few Menzies, and they pronounce their own name with the English “Z”! Love the Scottish limerick! Thanks for sharing!

  5. Ná habair é! (You’re welcome!) The thing with Menzies reminds me of the linguistic category of ‘ghost words’, which are the result of mistakes. Apparently for a long time people thought that a kime was a kind of Indian knife because this appeared in an account of Hindu customs as a misprint for knife! And in Irish, the word for inspector, cigire, comes from a misreading of the word cighireadh (cíoradh in modern spelling, meaning combing or inspecting closely). Ghost words could be an interesting topic for a post …

  6. But the question with ghost words is, who decides a word is ghost or not? There are examples of clear “typos” making it into accepted circles, such as “morse” as a typo for “nurse”, but then Shakespeare wrote his own name several different ways, and invented over 1,700 words and introduced them successfully into the English language; his generation may have called them ghost words, fake, or nonsense, but today we simply don’t know what we’d do without them! Words like accused, addiction, backing, bet, champion, critic, fashionable, fixture… One can’t help wondering how they said things before he came along!!

  7. Quite true! I’m sure we could have found another word for inspector (I can think of about four without even using a dictionary) but there’s no doubt it’s a perfectly valid word, regardless of its origin. I think ghost word doesn’t imply a value judgement, merely a comment on the word’s history. I don’t know if Shakespear(e)’s generation would have been critical, because there was an explosion of word creation going on at the time. It was the era of the so-called inkhorn terms and as you say, English would be quite impoverished without them!

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