Q&A: Isle vs aisle

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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?

A: CLEAN UP IN THE LANGUAGE AISLE PLEASE…

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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