I’ve always been a good speller myself, but even excellent spellers have their problem words. One way we try to deduce a word’s spelling is by identifying and stripping away the prefixes and suffixes — whose rules for appending we understand — to get at the root word. Once we understand that root, we can affix the, well, affixes back onto it and come up with the right spelling of the full word.
Take the word misspelled, for example. We can remember that double-S by recognizing that the word is created by adding mis- “wrongly” to the root word spell, and then we add the -ed on the end to form the past participle.
Usually this works. Some cases, though, aren’t that easy. for those words, we winnow down to the root word — or what we think is the root word — and when we reassemble the pieces, something has changed that we didn’t expect. Something didn’t follow “the rules” as we understood them, and we’ve misspelled the word.
Here are four such words than can lead otherwise good spellers to aggravation.
Sacrilegious is no stranger to lists of commonly misspelled words, and it’s easy to see why. There are two hurdles to spelling it correctly.
The first is the mistaken belief that we should find the word religious at its root, as if sac- were a prefix meaning “against.” That just isn’t the case.
But even if you don’t make the connection to religious, you know that sacrilege has to do with mishandling something that is sacred, and so you might identify that is the root word. Although that is correct, it doesn’t help you with spelling if you’re expecting to find sacre– in there.
So what’s going on?
Sacrilegious comes from Latin sacer- “sacred” (from which we also derive sacrifice, sacristy, and sacerdotal) + legere “to gather or steal.” Sacrilegious comes from a word meaning “one who steals sacred things.”
You can be forgiven for thinking someone who opens and runs restaurants might be called a *restauranteur. But you would be wrong. There is no N in restaurateur.
Restaurant comes from the French restaurer “to restore,” and it’s from this same source that we get the N-less restaurateur.
There’s a story that, in the mid-18th century, a Parisian named Boulanger opened an establishment that offered its customers bouillons restaurants — “restorative broths” — and it’s from this beginning that we get the word restaurant. However, the story wasn’t recorded until almost 90 years later, so it may be apocryphal.
What we do know, however, is that restaurants — though they might not have been called that at the time — really took off after the French Revolution when large numbers of chefs entered the labor market after their former aristocratic employers, er, lost their heads.
Because airline seat cushions are designed to float, they may, in the case of a water landing, be used as flotation devices — not a *floatation devices.
Middle English had the word flote, and perhaps we wouldn’t be in this mess if we had stuck with that spelling. But no, it only sticks around in flotation.
Why? Bryan Garner (Modern American Usage, 3E) cites two competing stories: According to the 1966 Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, the spelling was adopted to match up with other nautical terms like flotilla and flotsam, as well as rotation. A later story from another source claims that the word was probably influenced by the French flottaison, which means the same thing and was used in technical writings that were translated into English.
If you have an abundance of something — that is, you have plenty of it — you might think you have a *plentitude. Not quite: You have a plenitude.
Plenty and plenitude both come from the Latin plenus “full,” and plenitude means both “a state of fullness or completeness” and “an abundance.”
Here’s a pretty good mnemonic device for this whole family of words: Remember that one T is plenty for all its forms — plenty, plentiful, plenteous, plenitude, and plenitudinous.