The title of this posting is a quote attributed to President Andrew Jackson, who was president of the U.S. from 1829 to 1837. He lived at a time when spelling was no longer a matter of personal preference or whim. Long gone were the days when Shakespeare’s name, for example, could be spelled at least three different ways: Shakspear, Shackspere, Shakspere, each variant found on at least one legal document (and perhaps written by William himself).
Nowadays many people take a pretty laid-back view to spelling; perhaps u r 1 of them. However, if you want to impress a potential employer, a teacher (yours or your child’s), the admissions department of a particular university, the more judgmental readers of the letters-to-the-editor section of your local newspaper, and so on and so forth—then you have to toe the party line with respect to spelling.
Some people complain bitterly about how tough it is to spell English with any level of confidence. How is a person ever to keep track of all those rules about i before e and all those silent letters (like k and gh in knight) and letters that may or not be doubled (as in unnecessary)? Other languages don’t have these obstacles. For example, there’s no Scripps National Spelling Bee or anything like it in any of the Arab countries. Arabic is almost entirely phonetic, and if you learn what sound each letter makes, then you can quite easily spell any word you hear and you can even more easily sound out any written word.
In spite of the English language’s reputation for random and arbitrary spelling, there is quite a lot of logic behind most spelling. Contestants in spelling bees know this, which is why they often ask for the language of origin of a particular word. In words borrowed from other languages—and that’s a huge percentage of English words—the spelling of the original language is often preserved. Since about 60% of English words are of Latin origin, it stands to reason that an acquaintance with Latin will help take the mystery out of how these are spelled.
Let’s focus just on the problem of whether or not to double a letter. Here are three words, Mediterranean, occasion, and assimilate, which we’ll use as examples.
- Mediterranean: from medius, meaning ‘middle’, and terra, meaning ‘land’.
- Occasion: from ob, ‘toward’, and casu- ‘fallen’. The b in ob has become a c, and that is why there is a double c. (Try saying obcasion a few times fast, and you should have no trouble understanding why the change occurred.) There is no double s in casu-, so there is not one in the English derivation.
- Assimilate: from ad, ‘toward’, and similis, ‘similar’. Again, the d in ad has become an s, and thus we have a double s. In fact, the word assimilate is a prime example of a feature in linguistics (called ‘assimilation’) whereby a final letter in a prefix changes into the first letter of the root it is being added to. There are scores of such words in English, among them associate, illegal, and immoral, in addition to occasion, which we just saw.
The best part of all this for the student of Latin is that he doesn’t have to memorize spellings if he simply learns how to pronounce each new Latin word as he learns it. Latin words do not play tricks on the student. Individual letters, as well as a few combinations of letters, always make the same sound every time they show up.
Learn the Latin, understand the English, stop memorizing. It’s a really good deal.