Q&A: Rule Britannica

This week, we sit down to a lesson in ligatures with our friendly Q & A participants…

Q: Hello, do you think I have the Ebola virus? 
A: No.

Q: Okay, great, just thought I should check. Now I also want to ask about something I struggle with. 
A: Your hypochondria?

Q: No silly. I was over at my parents’ place the other day for lunch. We had a lovely roast lamb with a mint sauce and roast carrots and– 
A: Is any of this relevant?

Q: I’m getting to it. Anyway, I noticed they still have a full set of the  Encyclopedia Britannica in the corner of their lounge room.   
A: Ahhh the Britannica – a kind of papery pre-1995 world wide web, minus the endless videos of cats playing ukuleles. You are most certainly not alone in having parents who still own the complete set. These days, however, they are more likely to end up piled on top of vintage suitcases to create a bedside table in a renovation reality show.

Q: I know, right? And Wikipedia takes up considerably less shelf space. But anyway, my question is actually about the spelling of “encyclopedia”. The books had it as “encyclopaedia” but it seems very “ye olde fashioned” with that whole “ae” thing in the middle. What gives? 
A: Ah yes. For this, you’ll need the bonus extra volume that often came with that set of books – the atlas. (It’s like Google Maps, but made of paper.) The two main pages you’ll first need are Greece and Italy, and look up “ligatures” in the Britannica while you’re at it. The forms “ae” and “oe” had their rough origins back in the Ancient Greek language, before getting picked up by Latin – initially as ligatures, æ and œ.

Q: I got picked up by a Latin lover once. What a night. 
A: Hashtag awkward.

Q: Sorry. Ahem. Ah yeah, ligatures, okay… I’ve seen those before. And here I was thinking that ligatures were a characteristic notation style of the Medieval and Renaissance periods of music history. 
A: You can put the Britannica down now.

Q: Okay then. Hey, this makes a great coffee table book. Like, literally, this book is a great coffee table. 
A: Okay, anyway… eventually, most of the ligatures got split into ae and oe (although some, like “praemium” or “oeconomy” dropped the extra letter at that point to become “premium” and “economy”). And the world was cool with ae and oe for ooooh, about a gazillion years until America set up shop and decided it wanted to start meddling. In particular, a man named Noah Webster led the charge. We wrote a blog post about him back on 4 July.

Q: Okay, let me just go and read that. 
A: Good idea. We’ll just make a cuppa. Take your time.
A: [whistles]
A: [clanking of cups]
A: [kettle whistles]
A: [sipping sounds]

Q: Okay, I’m back! Quite enlightening actually. Everything makes a bit more sense now. But we should finish this Q&A anyway. 
A: Yes, we should. And you’re right, these encyclopedias do make great coffee tables.

Q: So, in a nutshell, you’re saying that US English decided they’d drop the double letter thing and just keep the “e” in each case? 
A: Precisely. So “encyclopaedia” became “encyclopedia” and “oestrogen” became “estrogen”. Same with foetus/fetus, mediaeval/medieval, paediatric/pediatric and plenty of others. It was like a giant “vowel fire sale”. Meanwhile, British English continued to use the extra letter versions.

Q: Are there exceptions?
A: Yes there are. Words like “archaeology” and “aesthetics” keep their “ae” variant in the US. And you’ll still order a “Caesar salad” but have a “cesarean” birth (not “caesarean”) in the States. But American usage is in general far more stubborn and it’s the British variants that are taking more of a hammering in recent decades.

Q: Examples? 
A: Well, let’s start with the word “encyclopedia” – you’ll find both spellings are acceptable now in Britain, as are many words like foetus/fetus etc. Here in Australia we only use the shorter “encyclopedia” version, and yet our spelling of “manoeuvre” retains the “oe” from the British.

Q: So what would be your advice with choosing which to use? 
A: It’s “when in Rome” – so you respect the prevailing usage of that country, and defer to their respective reference sources – things like Macquarie Dictionary here in Australia, Oxford English in UK and Webster’s in USA. And of course, particular businesses may take a stand to use particular variants – especially in the medical profession, where many of these words pop up.

Q: It does seem to affect a lot of words. It’s a bit like verbal diarrhea isn’t it? 
A: Or diarrhoea.

Q: Well at least I have plenty of 2-ply here. What’s this one? Volume 12, H–K… 
A: That’s one encyclopedia entry we don’t want to stick around for. Goodbye.

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