Daily Dose of Orthography

While checking over a recent math test, I started keeping track of the variety of spellings I saw for the word <answer>. Anyone from the dubious phonics brigade want to explain that <w>? Not surprisingly, each of the misspellings included that “mystery” letter, but with no previous explanation for its presence in the word, students placed it in a range of locations.

*anwser    *awsner     *anwers    *ansewr

This is what happens when students are taught to rely on visual memory for spelling. While going over the test, we headed to Etymonline for an investigation!

Hmmm… “against affirmation” and an original sense of “make a sworn statement rebutting a charge.” And a connection to “swear,” already we have evidence of why the <w> is present. Let’s follow <swear>.

“Also related to the second element in answer.”

Postulated word sum: <an> + <swer>

We enjoy finding an etymological explanation for spellings such as <answer> and <sign> and <two>. Much better than relying on mnemonics. How ridiculous is this one?!

6 thoughts on “Daily Dose of Orthography

  1. Old Grouch

    One of the many pusillanimous preposterosities of The Great Phonics Hoax is that it treats the letters of the alphabet as a set of phonetic symbols. Consequently, when letters in a spelling are not corresponding to what the devotees of The Hoax call ‘sound’ they are labelled as ‘silent’ (whose denotation is “quiet, noiseless, still” – so you have to wait a bit to check that the letter is making no noise and is keeping still before you can be sure that it is ’silent’).

    Yes, in the Kingdom of the Hoax, letters ‘say’ things and can even have ‘magic’ power; they go out ‘walking and talking’ too! “What does this letter say?” is part of the absurd discourse of phonicomania. Write any letter you like and put your ear as close to it as you can; it won’t “say” anything.

    So, while the ‘w’ in ‘answer’ is not “saying” anything, it is certainly telling us a lot. As Gina is constantly reminding us:

    “everyone knows that stories are made up of words, but words are also made up of stories. The stories of words are the vestiges of where our forefathers and foremothers have been. They are the footprints of human thought and the human experience.”

    So Gina – and Doug (the creator of Etymonline) – are certainly going to be delighted to see and savour this post.


    As for the memory overload and conceptual nullity of mnemonics (compare that with ‘amnesia’ to identify the base element of both words) for spelling, here’s a mnemonic for your delectation and delight.

    Preposterously Horrendous Orthographic Nonsense Infesting Countless Schools

    Actually, that’s not a real edubabbling mnemonic because in this case the meaning of the words given is the same as the meaning of the spelled word that results from it!

    1. Dan Post author

      “…but words are also made up of stories” has liberated my teaching. I look back on my own education as well as what I’ve peddled for much of my teaching career and now realize how low-level it all was. Strictly memorization. Like teaching a dog tricks…old tricks…really old tricks. Orthography is so different. Discovering a word’s story is so different. The blinders have been lifted!
      As always, thanks Old Grouch.

  2. Felicia

    I discovered the ‘answer – swear’ connections about a year or so ago,
    The idea that words that are connected in meaning will also have spelling
    connections was beginning to make sense to me. You know it takes a while
    for some of these strangely simple ideas to actually sink in because they go
    contrary to everything you have ever been taught. It is like ‘unlearning’ everything
    you have learned so that you can make room for these new concepts.
    I started checking some of the words on the “Most Commonly Misspelled Words” list
    from etymonline and that is when I made that wonderful discovery. You couldn’t
    believe my exhilaration. Not to mention that I was hilarious. By the way, I didn’t
    misspell ‘exhilaration’ because I was able to connect it to ‘hilarious’. How simple and amazing is that?

    Keep up the good work.

  3. LEX

    I’ll be sure to share this with Doug Harper. Dan, your analysis that the floating ‘w’ is a result of visual-memory based learning is spot-on. Now, your students won’t forget how this word is structured. Fascinating stuff!

    1. Dan Post author

      Thanks, Gina. With words that have seemingly random letters, I always think of “yolk” and its connection to yellow. What a revelation for students and teachers. We will definitely be on the hunt for more of those “mystery” letters!

      1. Old Grouch

        Here’s a entry from Noah Webster’s ‘An American Dictionary of the English Language’ :

        It is sometimes written and pronounced yolk, but yelk is the proper word. Yolk is a corruption.

        This is Webster’s prescriptivism at its dourest best!

        Actually, in the north of England,’yelk’ is still fairly common.

        I learned a lot from living in those wild and woolly Britannic climes for a couple of years in the sixties. For instance, the conversational past tense of ‘climb’ was still ‘clamb’; at a stroke I learned to separate the homophones ‘climb’ and ‘clime’. And I understood ‘clamber’ too.


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