A friend recently served me tea in a mug with spelling advice, the sort that reads “i before e except after c, or when …” then rattles off words like “foreign,” “neighbor,” and “weird.” The resident eight-year-old dramatically read the mug. She also read my tea leaves when I’d finished drinking. The leaves seemed to form a w, which prompted me to write her a letter about why “weird” is spelled so weirdly.
I’ve long struggled with spelling. Elementary school spelling bees made me feel faint – luckily I’d be asked to sit after one or two words – and I still feel slightly dizzy when spelling aloud, even though I only do it for my three-year-old or the men in jail. Nobody’s out to disparage my intellect, but spelling makes me anxious.
My friends teased me for weeks in eighth grade because I’d written a report about squirrels for science class, and apparently I spelled the word “squirrel” twelve different wrong ways in just four pages. I can’t even think of twelve reasonable mistakes, but my friends claimed to have counted. Then again, eighth graders are prone to exaggeration, especially in the service of malicious humor – I certainly was.
Conventional English spelling really is abominable, though.
I don’t think much is known about English before 1,000 A.D. Plenty of people spoke the language earlier, but they weren’t writing it down. Which is a shame, really. At Pages to Prisoners, we get a lot of requests for information about ancient religions, but there’s not always much to send. Nobody knows what the ceremonies at Stonehenge were like because that religion was displaced by Christianity around 700 A.D., before the English were writing. Visiting Romans had written about early Anglo-Saxon beliefs, but their writings were propaganda, all condemning the “dangerous, wild druids.”
But there are books in English from the past thousand years, and these show the way spelling changed over time. Since parenting doesn’t leave me much time to trawl through libraries for their oldest, rarest manuscripts, my linguistic spelunking is confined to the OED. I have the two-volume edition (and sufficiently sharp eyes that I can still read it without the magnifying glass).
The sentences using “weird” include spellings ranging from “wyrde” to “wierd” – I’ve tried my best to guess what each might have meant, but I’m decidedly unpracticed at early English. Rather than research or expertise, all I can offer are my attempts to sound out each word and guess what a writer might’ve wanted to convey. But these writers’ beliefs were very different from my own.
1000: What wyrde has hyder my iuel vayned. (author unknown)
I assume this means, “What power has heard my vain cry,” or “Why does fate not take mercy on me?”
Soon after this was written, William the Conqueror earned his title – England came under the rule of Normandy. French became the courtly language of England, and English was considered the uncouth province of serfs and servants. Even now, French-derived words are generally considered more polite than the Anglo-Saxon, and we use French words to describe animals that have been killed and cooked for wealthy people to eat.
1385: The werdys that we clepyn destene Hath shapyn hire that she mot nedis be Pyteous sad. (Chaucer)
“The forces that we call destiny have shaped her that she might need be piteously sad.”
In the early 1400s, English became courtly language of England again. But official use didn’t make spelling any less eccentric. Books were being produced one at a time, hand-copied by monks who sometimes altered words to suit their fancy.
When the monks were deciding how to spell words, they often included etymologically-relevant silent letters. Written language, they felt, should reveal its history. For instance, the French word ile – land surrounded by water – became the English ile. Then an “s” was added to make clear that the word derives from the Latin “insula.” Fine. But then the monks assumed that the similar word yland must have the same history, so they changed its spelling to “island.” They were wrong, though. The word yland comes from proto-Indo-European “akwa land,” a “water land.” It should have no “s.”
There were no English dictionaries. When laypeople wanted to know how to spell a word, they’d check a Bible. But each Bible had been copied by hand by a different monk. Words were often spelled differently from one Bible to the next.
In the mid 1400s, Johannes Gutenberg introduced a “movable type printing press” to Europe. (I was taught that he invented it, since elementary school history teachers in Indiana didn’t much care for celebrating Chinese discoveries. We’d talk about China only on the Lunar New Year – instead of their cultural and scientific achievements, we learned about paper dragons and superstitions.)
With the printing press, there was more incentive to lengthen words. Book producers had always been paid by the line, whether they were copying by hand or setting type, but typesetting is faster. There was more risk of running out of work. So the printers boosted profits by changing “frend” to “friend,” and the like. Why would they worry about befuddling elementary students born centuries in the future?
And yet, the OED’s post-Guttenberg citation for “weird” has a particularly lithe spelling.
1470: As werd will wyrke, thi fortoun mon thou take. (Henry)
“As the powers that be will work, your fortune may you take,” perhaps faintly presaging “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you get what you need.”
In the middle of the 1500s, England began to import English-language Bibles. These were typically typeset abroad by people who used the spelling conventions of their own languages – we owe our “h” in “ghost” to the Dutch word “gheest.” We almost wound up with silent “h”s in “ghospel” and “ghossip,” too, but thankfully those “h”s disappeared before they had a chance to confound me in spelling bees.
With more printed Bibles to consult, spelling conventions began to ossify.
1585: Vhom suld I warie bot my wicked weard, Vha span my thrifties thauard fatall threed? (Montgomerie)
I assume this means “Whom should I fear but my wicked fate, who has spun my thread toward calamity.” This seems like a particularly sad sentiment, to me. Something goes wrong, a friend offers sympathy, and you say, “Nah, don’t worry about it, it’s just that God has cursed me. Nothing to be done.”
Cheer up already, Eeyore!
In the 1600s, King James authorized a new translation of the Bible. This is when English first looks like the language I speak.
And there was Shakespeare. I think I’ll blame him for weird’s weird spelling. In Macbeth, he wanted for weird to be pronounced with two syllables – in several of his plays he toyed with characters matching the pronunciation of words to their strange spellings.
(I still get confused when kids are playing Clue and somebody asks about the wanton rampages of kernal Mustard. It’s not pronounced colonel?)
Instead of saying “wyrd” like we do, or “wurd” like English speakers had for centuries, he wanted the actor on stage to say “wee – yurd,” the way you might drawl it out if you saw a really gross slug or something. Presumably that gave the people writing down his play an added incentive to spell it “weird,” to make clear that it needed two vowel sounds.
After all, words spelled with “ie” were well-known to have a single sound, just the typesetters’ way of making a quick buck.
1835: Puir auld wives … Were seized in Superstition’s clutches, An’ brunt to death for wierds an’ witches. (Alexander Smart)
“Virtuous women took up superstition and were burnt to death for being strange, or witches.” Aren’t we humans grand?
1895: Weird wends as she willeth. (William Morris)
A beautiful sentence, to my mind. It’s recent enough to need no translating, but you could render it as “Fate does whatever fate wants,” or even “God works in mysterious ways.”
Where will weird wend my life’s weft next?