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Wordsleuth (2008, vol. 5, 2): Ptoing the Line for a Small Phoe

Katherine Barber
(Language Update, Volume 5, Number 2, 2008, page 18)

Here’s a challenge for you: How many ways can the syllable that sounds like "SEE" be spelled in English? Can you think of an example word to illustrate each of those spellings? Keep thinking! All will be revealed at the end of this article.

Because English speakers have been such enthusiastic borrowers from other languages throughout our history, our spelling is notoriously non-phonetic. It causes grief to both native speakers and second-language learners. But its sheer quirkiness has contributed to what we can only call a "language as parlour game" phenomenon: English speakers love to test their linguistic mettle (or is that metal, or meddle, or medal?) in games like spelling bees, and our many homophones make the language a fertile source for punsters.

(How are you doing on those "SEE" spellings? Are you up to 10 yet? There are more!)

For the last year, my fellow lexicographers and I have been working on a new dictionary that focuses on the words that are hard to spell in English. There is an honourable tradition of such "hard words" dictionaries in English; indeed, the first dictionaries were this kind, but they have fallen out of favour somewhat, replaced by the all-inclusive dictionaries. However, the dramatic rise in the popularity of spelling bees has led (not lead) us to think that the time is ripe again for such a book, and thus Oxford’s Canadian Spelling Bee Dictionary was born (not borne). It may surprise you to know that, even taking out the easy-to-spell words from the big Canadian Oxford Dictionary, we are still left with over 36,000 problem words.

So, for the last several months, we have thought about little else than spelling and pronunciation, and we have come to a radical conclusion. English is a wacky language. Lunatic, even. Consider how many ways we can write the sound "TOE." In a sensible language, it would be written "to." But no, not for us. The digraph "to" is pronounced "TOE" in some words, but when to is a word unto itself, it is pronounced "TOO," not of course to be confused with two or too. Dear me, I am feeling faint.

  • pto: ptomaine
  • tau: taupe
  • teau: plateau
  • teaux: Saulteaux
  • tho: Thomism
  • to: potato
  • toa: toad
  • toe: toe
  • toh: butoh
  • tot: Pitot
  • tow: tow
  • tto: ditto
  • (12 spellings)

"Twelve spellings," you think, "But that’s ridiculous!" (By the way, how are those "SEE" spellings coming along? There are more than twelve!)

Okay, then. Or should I say, "Oqué?" Because for the sound in okay we have:

  • ca: caber
  • cai: caiman
  • cay: decay
  • cca: occasion
  • cei: ceilidh
  • cha: chaos
  • k: KO
  • ka: kaolin
  • kay: okay
  • ke: kea
  • kei: keiretsu
  • key: Keynesian
  • kka: Akkadian
  • qa: qadi
  • qué: appliqué
  • que: quesadilla
  • quet: bouquet
  • (17 spellings)

Seventeen??!! Surely there (not their or they’re) can’t be more for "SEE"!

Think again!

And while you’re mulling on that, let’s talk about homophones some more. Our new dictionary lists all possible homophones of the words that are included. So our old confusable friends affect/effect, desert/dessert, and principal/principle are there. These are problems for all English speakers. But because our dictionaries are Canadian, we reflect Canadian pronunciation, and what are homophones for us are not necessarily homophones in other varieties of English. For instance, khat (an Arabian shrub whose leaves are chewed as a stimulant), cot and caught are all pronounced the same in Canadian English but differently in Southern Standard British English (where, what’s more, caught is a homophone of court, and khat is a homophone of cart). A particularly interesting phenomenon occurs when a vowel precedes the letter r. For most Canadians the words harry and hairy are perfect homophones. Dictionaries from other countries would fail to warn you about this. It’s not just the vowels that are a problem, though. In North American English we tend to pronounce the letter t between two vowels or before a syllabic l as "d"; hence it is possible to confuse tutor and Tudor or hurtle and hurdle. On looking at our almost 1,800 homophone warnings, you might think, "Well, really, who would ever confuse tootsie and Tutsi??" But bear in mind that in a spelling bee, contestants are given the word orally out of context, so when they hear the sound "TOOT see" (there, I’ve just given you two spellings of SEE!), they have no way of knowing what is meant. There are many more homophones than you probably suspect.

To keep you entertained while you’re still working on your "SEE" list, here are some other syllables in English with wildly variant spellings:

The choux is on the other foot:

  • choux: choux paste
  • sciu: prosciutto
  • shoe: shoe
  • shoo: shoo
  • shu: Shuswap
  • su: sensual
  • tu: punctual
  • xu: sexual
  • (8 spellings)

Jai thee to a nunnery:

  • ha’i: Baha’i
  • hai: Haida
  • hay: Haydnesque
  • hei: heinie
  • heigh: height
  • hi: hi
  • hie: hie
  • high: high
  • hy: hyacinth
  • jai: jai alai
  • (10 spellings, 11 if we also count chai in l’chaim)

Heaving a sci:

  • ci: cite
  • cy: cyan
  • psi: psi
  • psy: psych
  • sai: saiga
  • say: sayonara
  • sci: sciatic
  • scy: scythe
  • si: site
  • sig: sign
  • sigh: sigh
  • ssai: assai
  • ssi: Messiah
  • sy: prophesy
  • xi: xi
  • (15 spellings)

For a small phoe:

  • fae: faeces
  • fe: febrile
  • fea: feat
  • fee: fee
  • ffee: coffee
  • ffei: caffeine
  • ffi: graffiti
  • ffy: taffy
  • fi: fiasco
  • fie: fief
  • fil: fils
  • fille: fille de joie
  • fit: confit
  • fj: fjord
  • foe: foetus
  • fy: salsify
  • ghie: toughie
  • ghy: roughy
  • phae: nymphae
  • phe: phenol
  • phee: biographee
  • phi: morphine
  • phoe: phoebe
  • phy: philosophy
  • (a whopping 24 spellings)

But "SEE" trumps them all. This is your last chance. Exhausted all the possibilities you can think of? Let’s see.

From Cey to coe:

There are THIRTY different spellings of "SEE" in English!

  • cae: Caesar
  • ce: cede
  • cea: cease
  • cee: Sadducee
  • cei: receive
  • cey: Ceylonese
  • ci: calcium
  • cie: species
  • coe: coelom
  • cy: pharmacy
  • sce: scene
  • sci: hyoscine
  • se: sebum
  • sea: sea
  • see: see
  • sei: seize
  • sey: curtsey
  • si: si
  • sie: siege
  • sse: Tennessean
  • ssee: lessee
  • ssey: odyssey
  • ssi: lassi
  • ssie: lassie
  • ssy: sissy
  • sy: hypocrisy
  • xe: tuxedo
  • xi: taxi
  • xie: pixie
  • xy: boxy
  • (30 spellings)

I can only conclude that all of us who have to write English, especially those of us who make our livings in the language industries, deserve a meddle, dammit, I mean medal for putting up with this chaos.