SCEPTIC.

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.

Comments

  1. Perhaps to avoid collision with septic?

  2. I suspected there might be a scheptic in there somewhere, and indeed here lies one from 1826.

  3. Call me skeptical, but as a native UK English speaker, I have never seen the word spelt other than with a k.

  4. @Tim May: That’s what I’ve always thought, although French seems to pronounce them homophonously as sceptique/septique. Italian and Spanish, on the other hand, both distinguish them (scettico/settico and escéptico/séptico).
    Another case that seems similar is that of Celt and its derivatives, which are generally pronounced with /k/ except when referring to the Boston and Glasgow sports teams. I’ve seen dictionaries attest Kelt as an alternative form, but it hasn’t caught on as skeptic has. Perhaps Celt is bolstered by the use of c to represent /k/ before front vowels in modern Celtic languages.

  5. In statistics there’s a similar issue with the spelling of “skedastic”/”scedastic” and its derivatives.

  6. Skeptics In The Pub appears to be a predominantly UK-based organization, and is spelled with a “k” everywhere.
    The stories of “s[kc]eptic” and “schedule” seem to have some similarities. In both cases, there’s a conflict between French and classical forms (spelling and/or pronunciation), resolved in AmE firmly in favor of the classical forms, and in BrE by a kind of half-hearted mishmash.

  7. I can’t wait to hear what you think of A Dance to the Music of Time. I’ve never read it, but it’s high on my list. Every character seems to have been a thinly veiled version of someone or other, so I want to get hold of a version that substitutes the real names.

  8. Sceptic is my default spelling, but I use both. It seems to be strongly preferred in Ireland, but skeptic is not uncommon and I like its unambiguousness. I think sceptic is apt to cause miscues in some readers through analogy with sceptre in particular.

  9. “Call me skeptical, but as a native UK English speaker, I have never seen the word spelt other than with a k.” Are you young? Don’t read widely? Unobservant?

  10. How about “schism”? WKPD reports:
    Pronunciation
    /ˈskɪzəm/, /ˈsɪzəm/, /ˈʃɪzəm/
    The middle one was the one I was used to when young i.e. the one used by my schoolteachers and my parents.

  11. 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.
    As one of those pesky foreign learners, I can vouch for that. It’s fairly common for colleagues who otherwise have a very decent grasp of English to declare themselves septic.

  12. Sceptic is my default spelling, but I use both. It seems to be strongly preferred in Ireland
    Of course, in Ireland it appears to have another more colloquial meaning.

  13. omphaloskepsis

  14. Apart from scepter/sceptre (in Russian skee-pee-terr), there is also a peculiar variation in the spelling of czar/tzar/tsar, with czar being more American and tsar being more British, because caesar is from the Greek pronunciation кесарь – keh-sar’, but царь – tsah-r’ has an obviously Latin ts sound in it, closer to Latin цезарь – tse-zahr’.
    And in German we have a kaizer.
    Thanks for picking that up, Hat.

  15. Dearie: As a native AustEng speaker long resident in the UK, I have always said skeptic but spelled it sceptic and am rather surprised at the sk spelling.
    Incidentally, Hat’s Comments spellchecker wants skeptic.
    And I pronounce schism as skism.

  16. Schism is like school and Norwegian skole, not German schule (lat. schola von griechisch σχολή [skʰoˈlɛː]).

  17. I pronounce schism like scissors.

  18. “Of course, in Ireland it appears to have another more colloquial meaning.”
    Does it? Do tell; I’ve never heard of it. I’ve heard ‘septic’ in the sense “conceited; vain; smug”, and slang.ie has entries matching this definition at both septic and sceptic; I would have thought the latter was simply a misspelling.

  19. I pronounce schism as skizm, but cf. John Henry Newman: “Mysticism is something that begins in mist and ends in schism.”

  20. @mollymooly: I’d have thought the former was the misspelling. We’ve all known people who call themselves “skeptics” and are really dogmatic unbelievers, often in the style of a previous century. I suspect they must be as common in Ireland as they are in Kentucky.

  21. We’ve all known people who call themselves “skeptics” and are really dogmatic unbelievers, often in the style of a previous century. I suspect they must be as common in Ireland as they are in Kentucky.
    Indeed, but that’s not what I meant by “conceited; vain; smug”. When I heard ‘septic’ used, it described pretensions of appearance, fashion sense, and personal grooming rather than intellectual pretensions.
    The possibility that people would agree on the spelling of a slang word but not on its pronunciation seems less likely than the converse, given that such words are usually transmitted orally. I admit that the semantic connection of “vain” to “septic” is tenuous. Perhaps it is rhyming slang (septic tank ~ wanker), but that’s more common in Dublin than Cork.
    The theory that insult “skeptic” derives from pretentious “skeptic” causes me to wonder whether there exists a term for the appropriation of a positive self-description as an ironic insult. The polar opposite of “reclaiming” should be “declaiming”, but that lexical space is occupied.

  22. My Cassell Dictionary of Slang says “septic adj. [1910s+] unpleasant, rotten, mean.” I think it extremely unlikely verging on impossible that it was derived from s(c/k)eptic, especially since that word has never been pronounced /septik/.

  23. rhyming slang (septic tank ~ wanker)
    There seems to be such a thing as
    septic tank ~ Yank
    Not that this explains anything.

  24. Correction: Dr Johnson has SKEPTICK as a headword. He gives four examples of its use; curiously, in all the examples the spelling is sceptick (the final -ck is characteristically Johnsonian; he invariably used it in all -ic words).

  25. Final -ick even in non-native words is not unique to Johnson; it was standard, though beginning to fade, in his day. Indeed, one of the “Abyssinian” characters in his prose romance Rasselas was apparently given the name Imlac in order to make him seem more foreign. Boswell quotes Bennet Langton as reporting that Johnson said ” ‘Imlac’, in ‘Rasselas’, I spelt with a c at the end, because it is less like English, which should always have the Saxon k added to the c.”

    Boswell adds to this in a footnote: “I hope the authority of the great master of our language will stop that curtailing innovation by which we see critic, public, &c frequently written instead of critick, publick, &c”, showing the innovation at work. And in his 1831 edition of the Life, John Wilson Croker (1780-1857) added a further note to Boswell’s: “Why should we not retrench an obvious superfluity? In the preceding age, public and critic were written publique and critique. Johnson himself, in a memorandum among Mr. Anderdon’s [sic] papers, dated in 1784, writes cubic feet.”

    Or as Mr. Verb has it: “Language changes. Deal with it. Revel in it.”

Speak Your Mind

*