Q&A: Isle vs aisle

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week we are rolling in the aisles…

Q: Hi AWC, we noticed during the recent Furious Fiction that a lot of people seem to have trouble with the words “isle” and “aisle”. Can you help?

A: One moment, let’s just get on the loudspeaker…

Q: What are you doing?


Q: Haha, cute. So clearly the supermarket version is “aisle”…

A: That’s right. Macquarie Dictionary describes an “aisle” as a passageway – typically through seats (e.g. in a church or plane) or through shelves (e.g. a supermarket).

Q: And “isle”?

A: A small island.

Q: So what are their origins? Wait, what’s that sound – can you hear it?

A: Is it going “doodly doo doodly doo doodly doo”?

Q: Yes, that’s it. Oh wait, are we doing a flashback?

A: Yeah, just go with it. Doodly doo. Doodly doo….

Q: So where are we? On a desert isle?

A: Haha, no. We’ve gone all the way back to the 13th century – when the word “isle” first turned up on the scene, from French “ile” and before that, Latin “insula”.

Q: Wait, “insula”? Like “peninsula”?

A: Yes, that came centuries later – with “pen” meaning “almost”, so a “peninsula” is “almost an island”.

Q: So does the word “insular” come from “insula”?

A: Actually it DOES. To have an insular view, for example, is akin to being on an island – and its origins are indeed the same.

Q: Isle drink to that.

A: Want to know what else came from “insula”?

Q: Yes please.

A: The word “insulin” – coined in 1922.

Q: Wait, what? How is the hormone secreted by the pancreas at all related to islands?

A: Well, it turns out the specific place within the pancreas had been named “the islets of Langerhans” about 50 years earlier by German scientist Paul Langerhans.

Q: Well thank you for that injection of insulin into our conversation, but I’d still like to know more about “isle” and “aisle”.

A: Of course. The most surprising thing is that while all those other things are linked to “isle” (via “insula”), the one word that isn’t is “island”.

Q: Whaaaaa?

A: It had a different, much later, origin – from Old English “ieg land”. However, in the late 1500s, they cleaned up the spelling and matched it to the unrelated “isle” to get “island”.

Q: And both varieties remained.

A: Well yes – after all, they were two completely different islands, in a sea of lexical change.

Q: How poetic. So what about “aisle”?

A: Well, this started out in the late 1300s as “ele” – the lateral division of a church. But after “island” and “isle” consolidated their “s”, “ele” was mistakenly given an “s” too.

Q: “You get an S, and you get an S. You ALL get an S!”

A: Thanks Oprah. This was around the 1700s, and an “a” was added half a century later, perhaps to align the word with the French “aile”. It’s a mess – but “isle” played a big part in its final spelling.

Q: Wow. Sounds like there was a clean up in the “isle” aisle. Letters flying everywhere.

A: True, although the changes we’ve described in a few sentences often took centuries to reveal themselves.

Q: And today?

A: The words “isle” and “aisle” are similar in spelling only – with the latter basically manipulated into taking a similar form due to its similar sound. Almost as punishment for this, “isle” has generally been replaced by “island” for most things; only really used in existing geographic names (e.g. Isle of Wight) or in poetic forms.

Q: That’ll teach it for having such an “insula” view of language…

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!


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