Superseding “Supersede.”

Anne Curzan at Lingua Franca reports on a spelling challenge the graduate-student instructor for her introductory English linguistics course had given to students: Which irregular spellings are you willing to part with? One of the suggestions was supersede; Curzan is sold, and I find myself willing to accept the wildly popular (mis)spelling supercede. Sure, it’s historically unjustifiable (to supersede is, etymologically speaking, to sit on), but so what? Plenty of English words have opaque etymologies (to take one common example, the -h- in author has no justification other than 16th-century whimsy), and the model of words like intercede appears to be irresistibly attractive. So let people spell it that way if they like.

I also don’t mind indite for indict (particularly since the –ct is pronounced in interdict — it’s just too confusing). But vacume for vacuum? No, no, a thousand times no. Not only does it look stupid, there are still people who pronounce it with three syllables, including me when it isn’t part of the phrase vacuum cleaner (I picked up that particular bit of pedantry from the late Indo-Europeanist Warren Cowgill, who had the misfortune to try to supervise my wretched attempt at a dissertation four decades ago).


  1. Well, I will be go to hell. I have been saying interdyte most of my life, and indeed on checking the OED this very spelling is found from Middle English times until the 17C, suggesting that a /k/-less pronunciation with a long vowel was in use back then. But of course I pronounce interdiction like diction.

    Note that indite is a separate verb meaning ‘to put into words’, and by extension ‘to write down’. But indict is far more common, and they have the same origin anyway: I’m quite happy to let them become a case of polysemy rather than homonymy.

    In general, I am willing and indeed eager to abandon all irregular spellings, and indeed all regular but rare spellings that don’t make distinctions significant to anyone living. So let vein be spelled like vain, and let’s write captain as capten, so it doesn’t look like retain.

  2. Interdict pronouncing the ct? No no no.

    Baffled and plagued by a mind that every hour
    Turns recreant to her task; takes heart again,
    Then feels immediately some hollow thought
    Hang like an interdict upon her hopes.

    Absolutely has to be interdyte.

  3. For indict, my preference would be to change it to a fully French “endite” (mentioned in the linked article). But “in-“vs. “en-” doesn’t really matter. I agree “vacume” is silly.

    In general, there are tons of irregular spellings in English that really have no discernible purpose or value. It’s not a large group relative to the other words in the language (spelling reformers often greatly exaggerate this and ignore the existence of many regularly-spelled words), but it is large relative to most other alphabetically-spelled languages.

    The final “c” in zinc has always seemed an unnecessary irregularity to me, even if it is possible to imagine some justification for it like saying that it represents a Latinization of the German form. Also, I wouldn’t mind if “quay” went extinct and was replaced with “key.”

    This next one would never catch on, but I think it’d save people a lot of pointless trouble if we respelled the -ceive and -cei(p)t words with -ceve and -cete. And I think it looks just as nice.

  4. Absolutely has to be interdyte.

    Check your dictionary, my friend.

  5. I’m perfectly happy with supercede, and also miniscule, while we’re at it.

  6. Yeah, that’s another good candidate.

  7. “I also don’t mind indite for indict (particularly since the –ct is pronounced in interdict — it’s just too confusing).”

    No no no it’s the c which *prevents* confusion, by showing the reader that the words are related.

    It may seem like mission creep for a spelling to include some etymological trivia, but it has its charm, like that aunt who, in the middle of an anecdote, always digresses into another one.

  8. I’m all about the etymological trivia, obviously, and I prefer to keep all spellings just as they are; this is about which changes I would have the least resistance to.

  9. Indict being essentially a term of art, is well protected from any changes.

  10. Alon Lischinsky says

    @D.O.: but it’s the kind of term of art that has currency with the general public. A large majority of the instances of indict in (for example) COCA come from news reporting rather than legal texts.

  11. Oh, I disagree, Molly. The spelling “indict” might associate the word with another which is etymologically related, but it dissociates the word’s spelling from its pronunciation, and that is a more pertinent issue, I think.

    I would gladly undo all the vandalism certain people wrought upon English words to establish a needless link between their spelling and the spellings of foreign words, even if the latter might be etymologically related to the former. At any rate, I would gladly do so if, in the process, the changes broke the more useful links between spelling and pronunciation, and between the spellings of related English words.

    Let “receipt” lose its p, and once again match “conceit” and “deceit”. Let “debt”, “doubt”, “redoubt” and “ptarmigan” lose their silent letters.

    “Supersede” might look anomalous but at least it is consistent with the pronunciation and relates to its Latin ancestor. More anomalous, though, are “exceed”, “proceed” and “succeed”, which match each other but fail to match “recede”, “secede” and “intercede” — and even “procedure”.

    “Height” would be better spelt “hight”, which better accords with the pronunciation, because the letter-sequence “eight” is in almost all cases pronounced as in “eight” — “hight” also makes a pertinent link to “high”.

    “Gauge” would be better as “gage” — in what other English word is the FACE vowel spelt “au”?

    Let’s also sort out “licence” and “practice” — or should the c be s? The c/s variation is a difference without a useful distinction, so why not simplify matters and make the last consonant consistently s?

    “Judgement” needs that first e to show that the g is soft. Likewise “acknowledgement”.

    But I think I’d want only modest reforms in spelling, where the change wouldn’t make words harder to read. I wouldn’t want to touch e.g. “its”, “it’s”, “your” or “you’re”, even though misspellings of them are among the most frequent.

  12. Alon Lischinsky, yes, of course, but it is media coverage of legal proceedings and it must follow legal jargon.

  13. David Marjanović says

    “Judgement” needs that first e to show that the g is soft. Likewise “acknowledgement”.

    This e happens to be redundant behind dg, as Noah Webster correctly observed.

  14. No way am I giving of some of my favorite lines for any damn dictionary, Hat 🙂

  15. Whether there should be an “e” after “dg” is something that still trips me up. And the spelling of “minuscule.”

  16. I’ve seen “gage” in printed documents going back to the 1950s, I’m fine with that one. No risk of confusion with the fruit.

    “vane”, “vein”, “vain” I think has a useful purpose.

    “Comptroller” is another one I think could be changed.

  17. I’ve seen “gage” in printed documents going back to the 1950s, I’m fine with that one.

    Yes, that passes my acceptability test as well.

  18. For me, the plum meaning of “gage” does not exist as part of my idiolect. However, the meaning of a valuable item left as marker for a debt or obligation is still quite salient. (It’s where we get “mortgage,” a word that’s neen much on my mind as I am about to sell my old house.)

    I also like it as a respelling of “gauge” as well.

  19. Some people (mostly in East Anglia) pronounce vane (FACE) differently from vane/vein (STRAIT), so I don’t want to merge that. But vein, rein, reign, deign, feign, sheik, veil, beige are pretty much the only words where ei is used for the STRAIT vowel rather than the FLEECE vowel, and that seems an unnecessary complication.

  20. At the risk of horrifying Classics readers, I could live with losing ad nauseam/-um as a shibboleth. Liquify and putrify also make the cut, and maybe even publically.

  21. Dictionaries already list publically as a standard variant.

  22. @John: Collins, M-W, and the OED do, but it’s not listed by Oxford Dictionaries, Macmillan, or Cambridge, and the American Heritage Dictionary calls it nonstandard. So there isn’t a consensus.

  23. To me ad nauseum won’t fly. It’s not as if such words exist in a vacume.

  24. For nearly a dozen years I supported an industry-leader product data management software package that spelled the workflow step superceded out of the box and could not be changed (because of the internal workflows that used it). For more training classes than I could count, I apologised for the spelling error to engineers who looked at me for two seconds like I was crazy because they had noticed nothing wrong at all. That is, except for the lovely young lady who came up to me after class and gushed, “Are you on the spectrum? Because I am totally a person with Asperger’s and I can tell you are too because you’re so easy for people like me to understand; I noticed first when you were such a spelling nerd, me too”.

    Five years after that day, incidentally, I was found to be on the spectrum, but that’s beside the point, lol.

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