It occurred to me to wonder why the word nephew, which comes from French neveu, is written with –ph-, so I looked it up in the OED, which (though the entry was updated in September 2003) is uncharacteristically unhelpful — after listing over a hundred variant spellings (including neveaw, newowe, neuo, nephwoy, and nevvey) gives the following etymology:
< Anglo-Norman nevou, neveu, nevew, nevu, newu and Old French, Middle French neveu (also in Old French as nevou, nevo, nevu, nepveu, etc.; French neveu), originally the oblique case of Old French nies, niers (c1100; 2nd half of the 12th cent. in sense ‘grandson’, c1500 as nepveux (plural) in sense ‘descendants’) < classical Latin nepōt-, nepōs, grandson, descendant, a prodigal (see sense 2c), a secondary shoot (see sense 5), in post-classical Latin also nephew (4th cent.), niece (13th cent.), cognate with neve n.1. Compare also nepote n.
Which has some interesting information (I didn’t know about the OF nominative nies, niers, or the native Germanic form neve, parallel to German Neffe), but doesn’t address the spelling issue. Spellings with –p– go back way earlier than I would have guessed (?1456 Duke of York in Paston Lett. & Papers (2004) II. 100 “To take possession and saisine, in the name and to þe vse of our ful worshipful nepueu th’Erl of Warrewic”); I realize it must be Latinizing, after nepōs, but it seems very odd — we write river, not riper or ripher, even though again French –v– is from Latin –p-. Does anybody know anything more about the history of this spelling change, and the concomitant spelling pronunciation with /f/ which is universal in the US and exists in the UK as well? Come to think of it, that’s another thing I’m curious about — I’ve long been aware of the UK pronunciation /ˈnɛvjuː/, but for some reason I had the impression it was antiquated; the OED, however, implies it’s the more common one:
Pronunciation: Brit. /ˈnɛvjuː/, /ˈnɛfjuː/, U.S. /ˈnɛfju/
So I’ll ask you Brits: do you say it with /v/ or /f/, and do you think of the former as standard or old-fashioned?