Separated by a common language

I’m a member of a fantastic little writer’s group on Facebook and from time to time someone has a question for the collective. Occasionally, these questions even have something to do with writing or words, and it’s one of these questions that’s led me to today’s blogpost.

One of the group, let’s call him Ben…because that’s his name, asked the very simple and honest question: is it TIDBIT or TITBIT? He had a friend that insisted it was TITBIT…

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It couldn’t be that, could it? And so, members of the group weighed in… NO, it’s TIDBIT. Of course it’s tidbit, that other word is just…wrong.

This is the part of the story where I appear in a puff of blue smoke with the drone of the bagpipes in the air. Did I mention in the last five minutes I’m originally from Scotland? No? Well, guess what…I am! lol

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Over in Scotland, and the rest of the UK, words are ever so slightly different. And it’s not just the plethora of weird and wonderful accents I’m talking about. Over there it’s still colour, not color; theatre, not theater, and it’s TITBIT. lol.

None of this matters in the big scheme of things, although I’m very aware that my spelling has gotten worse since I moved to the US because there are enough differences between UK and US words that I have to double check even the simplest words. Even now, after twenty years in the US, some of my writing can sound like I’m from somewhere other than the US and that won’t do as a writer who writes primarily for a US audience. I can’t very well have someone from Seattle sounding like they just crawled out of Scratchy Bottom, South Dorset, England.

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So, as a writer, I’ve had to spend an unusual amount of time learning subtle differences in word usage, with editors quick to pull me up on words that don’t quite sound right, and analyzing (analysing) the little spelling differences which actually do make sense. For instance, switching the ‘re’ to ‘er’ in theater makes sense phonetically, while knocking the ‘u’ out of color saves you a letter and doesn’t change the sound. There are a bazillion other examples of US spellings being simplified, so it got me thinking about where the original UK spellings of certain words came from because they can tend towards the unusual or archaic. For example, let’s talk about the double vowel pairings of AE and OE.

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I spell ETHER, or at least I used to spell it: AETHER. Other examples of ‘AE’ being used in UK spelling, with the A being knocked off for the US spellings, whilst (while) keeping the ‘e’ sound: Archaeology, Haemoglobin, Encyclopaedia and Anaesthesia.

And also, ‘OE’, which like ae keeps the ‘e’ sound and removes the other vowel, as in FOETUS, OESOPHAGUS and COELIAC.

I wondered where these weird vowel pairings came from. It turns out, Latin took Greek vowel sounds and created æ and œ to represent those sounds and, when English started morphing Latin, it stole those and added them to the written language. Æ was known as the letter ASH, while Œ was known as ETHEL, both the Ash and Ethel names coming from proto-Germanic Runic alphabets that the Anglo-Saxons brought over from Europe. Yes, this might be why English can be such a confusing language lol.

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Of course, there are only twenty-six letters in the alphabet nowadays, with no Ash or Ethel in sight. Typesetting and printing led to fewer complicated letters and so Æ became AE and now, in the US at least, just E. Same goes with Ethel.

Of course, there are always exceptions to keep you on your toes, and while America embraced simplicity for most of their word changes, they left a few out. Phoenix gets to keep it’s OE pairing and so does amoeba, while plurals of some latin words still in use today: larvae and algae, get to keep the AE pairing.

Clearly none of this has anything to do with why TITBIT is TIDBIT in the US. In this case, it’s one of those words that started as Old English as tyd-bit and morphed into titbit and then morphed back in the US to tidbit. I expect words to change at a quicker rate now that we’re so interconnected on social media and new words seem to get invented all the time, while old words are altered to reflect changes in how we communicate.

Do you have any favorite idiosyncratic words? Let me know in the comments! :)