Casting a spell on English (part three)

Posted by on November 10, 2009

© Pat Lalli / Fotolia.comThere are a number of words in English which end with the consonant m followed by the consonant n. Words like hymn, condemn, solemn. We don’t pronounce the n so the words are pronounced /hɪm/, /kənˈdem/, and /ˈsɒləm/. When they form derived words, such as hymnal, condemnation, or solemnity, then the letter n becomes pronounced: /ˈhɪmnəl/, /ˌkɒndemˈneɪʃ(ə)n/, /səˈlemnəti/.

Another word that follows this pattern is the verb damn, meaning to criticize someone or something very severely, and it’s pronounced /dæm/. The noun damnation brings the n into the pronunciation: /dæmˈneɪʃ(ə)n/.

But the adjective, damning, despite now having a vowel following the n, doesn’t pronounce the n: /ˈdæmɪŋ/. There is also a verb dam, meaning to stop a river or stream from flowing by building a dam across it. So the adjectives damming and damning are pronounced the same: /ˈdæmɪŋ/.

We’ve had people look for damm and damme, and there have also been searches for condem, condemed, condemmed, and condemme. No one has looked up solemn, but we’ve had people looking for solem.

A slip-up on the proofreading before the main BBC television news the other night led to the lead item being introduced with a picture bearing the misspelled caption Damming Report.

This is not intended to disparage the BBC. We’re all fallible. Many years ago, a publishing house, which shall remain nameless, printed an entry for the word millenium in its first printing. The error was spotted and corrected in later printings of the book. Unfortunately, in a village in the North of England, a stonemason had been commissioned to make a Millennium Monument and had checked the spelling in the early edition of that dictionary, leading to some embarrassment at the unveiling ceremony.

If you look up millenium (with English as the selected language) on Google, you find 11.2 million matches. So it would be tempting to think that was the correct spelling. But millennium yields 44.1 million so first impressions can be misleading. On Macmillan Dictionary Online, there have been 35 searches for the word millenium, and none for millennium. The searches have come from eight countries, with Hungary and the United States leading the way.

Read, cast a spell on English (part 4).

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Comments (3)
  • Looking at google.hu there appears to be great confusion in Hungary even about the spelling of the Hungarian word. The correct spelling is ‘millennium’ (so with two m’s as in English). The adjectival form, however, is ‘millenáris’ (= millennial in English) spelled with a single ‘n’.

    Posted by Kati Sule on 10th November, 2009
  • This raises the interesting question (for dictionary-makers) of when something stops being “a common misspelling” and simply becomes one of the regular ways of spelling the word (and thus gets a dictionary entry). I’m thinking of “minuscule”, where the alternative spelling “miniscule” is now so common that it may be misleading to class it as an error. In Macmillan’s own corpus of 1.7 billion words, the “correct” spelling is only marginally more frequent than the alternative: minuscule=778 examples, miniscule = 634.

    Posted by Michael Rundell on 10th November, 2009
  • Miniscule obviously gains its credibility from the prefix “mini-” which occurs at the start of a large number of words in English, while “minu” doesn’t. Of course, minuscule is formed from the adjective “minus” (not “minu”) and the suffix “culus” (not “sculus”), but most of us are unaware of the exact etymologies of the words we use.

    Some dictionaries, such as the American Heritage, already hold “miniscule” as a variant of “minuscule” with no comment on the correctness or othwerwise of the variant spelling.

    The word used to be stressed on the second syllable, so the “u” was more apparent in the pronunciation. John Wells’ Pronunciation Dictionary still records this second-syllable stress as a variant. The “u” would also be more apparent in the pronunciation of the derived form “minuscular”, although this seems to be a word found only in dictionaries and not in either the Macmillan corpus nor in real life.

    Posted by Stephen Bullon on 11th November, 2009
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