Recently I was asked to share a post about The Most Misspelled English Word in Every Country and State, Based on Two Billion Tweets.
However, on a list of the 100 Most Commonly Misspelled Words on YourDictionary.com, foreign and miniscule do appear, but coolly and promise don’t.
Miniscule is in fact a “disputed spelling variant of minuscule”, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. It as been around since the late 19th century and often appears in print, although is “widely regarded as an error”.
This got me thinking – if a word is widely misspelled / misspelt*, is this a sign of language change? Maybe one day the misspelling will be accepted as an alternative way to spell the word, or even as the standard way to spell it.
*misspelt is used in the UK, though has become less widely-used since the 1970s, while misspelled is used in most English-speaking countries, including the UK [source].
English spelling is not entirely fixed, and some words may have more than one standard spelling, particularly in different varieties of English.
According to Wikipedia, “Spelling is a set of conventions that regulate the way of using graphemes (writing system) to represent a language in its written form … Spelling is one of the elements of orthography, and highly standardized spelling is a prescriptive element.”
Standardized / standardised spelling is a relatively recent phenomenon that developed along with dictionaries, universal education, literacy and language academies. It is enforced by teachers, proofreaders, editors and pedants.
In the past, spelling was very much a matter of personal choice. For example, there are six known signatures written by William Shakespeare, each of which is spelled differently: Willm Shakp, William Shaksper, Wm Shakspe, William Shakspere, Willm Shakspere and William Shakspeare [source]. In printed works his name appears as Shake‑speare, Shakeſpeare, Shak‑speare and Shakeſpere. The Shakespeare spelling became popular from the 1860s [source].
Does spelling matter?
It does, at least in formal writing. In informal writing, it may not be so important, as long as your message is clear. In fact, non-standard spellings might be preferred in some contexts. They are certainly a popular way to make brandnames distinct – Kwik Fit, Krispy Kreme, etc.