A recent post at Sashura’s blog Тетрадки (in Russian) focused my attention on an oddity of English spelling: sceptic (as it is written outside the US) is pronounced with initial /sk-/. It’s true that there are not many English words beginning with sce- (the others one is likely to encounter are scene and its derivatives, scent, and scepter/sceptre), but I think I can say with confidence that an /sk-/ pronunciation is such an anomaly it’s liable to throw foreign learners for a loop (and in fact Sashura wonders whether Brits say /septik/). The contrast with scepter/sceptre is especially striking; both are ultimately from Greek words beginning σκ- that were borrowed into Latin with sc-, and both have corresponding French forms (sceptique, sceptre) pronounced with initial /s-/. How did sceptic wind up with that unexpected pronunciation? The fact that the first OED citations spell it skeptic (a1582 G. Buchanan Let. in Vernac. Writings “I can not tak you for ane Stoik philosopher..or ane cairless [margin, skeptik] hart that taks cuccaldris as thyng indifferent”; 1598 J. Marston Scourge of Villanie i. i. 174 “Fye Gallus, what, a Skeptick Pyrrhomist [sic]?”) suggests that it was originally borrowed directly from Greek; I’m guessing that people then began using a Latinized/Frenchified spelling as being less uncouth-looking or something, but kept the /sk-/ pronunciation. (Compare colonel, which wound up with a modern French spelling that doesn’t fit its pronunciation.) In any event, I’m glad Noah Webster saved Americans from having to memorize this exception; we write it like we say it, skeptic.
By the way, for those who might be following the ongoing saga of my nightly reading to my wife, having finished The London Train (P.S.) (thanks again, jamessal), we’ve started on Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. That should hold us for a while.
Addendum. Investigating further, I find this delightfully silly paragraph in John Walker’s Principles of English Pronunciation (1816):
350. In the word sceptic, where the first c, according to analogy, ought to be pronounced like s, Dr Johnson has not only given his approbation to the sound of k, but has, contrary to general practice, spelt the word skeptic. It may be observed, perhaps, in this, as on other occasions, of that truly great man, that he is but seldom wrong; but when he is so, that he is generally wrong to absurdity. What a monster does this word skeptic appear to an eye the least classical or correct! And if this alteration be right, why should we hesitate to write and pronounce scene, sceptre, and Lacedæmon, skene, skeptre, and Lakedæmon, as there is the same reason for k in all? It is not, however, my intention to cross the general current of polite and classical pronunciation, which I know is that of sounding the c like k; my objection is only to writing it with the k: and in this I think I am supported by the best authorities since the publication of Johnson’s Dictionary.
Interesting that even the authority of Dr. Johnson was not sufficient to sway the laudatores temporis acti.