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're taking things scep by skep…
Q: Hi AWC, I was reading an American newspaper recently about “climate change skeptics”. I can’t believe they still exist!
A: Yes, the climate is a divisive issue.
Q: Oh, no I meant I can’t believe newspapers still exist.
A: Ah okay, sorry. Did you have a question?
Q: Well yes – it was that the article spelt the word “skeptics”… yet I always spell it “sceptic” or “sceptical”. Can you explain?
A: We certainly can. And you’re absolutely right in your spelling – as are the Americans.
Q: Oh goody, it’s another round of spin the globe.
A: Yep. English has survived a number of centuries, but as we’ve discussed many times in these chats–
Q: Many MANY times…
A: …Yes, many many times there are geographic differences in spelling. The word “sceptic” turned up in the 1580s linked to Middle French “sceptique” and Latin “scepticus” before that. And originally it meant a person who investigates or researches – kind of a CSI: Middle Ages vibe.
Q: Oh, was CSI: Middle Ages the one with Gary Sinise?
A: No, it wasn’t. Anyway, by the time the 1600s arrived, the meaning had aligned more with today’s “doubting person”. And at the same time, the alternative spelling of “skeptic” caught on as English was going through a Greek revival. “Skeptikos” had in fact been the original spelling before Latin.
Q: So the U.S. went with “skeptic”?
A: They sure did – and all the rest of the words. Skeptical, skepticism and so on. Canada also ended up with the same.
Q: And the rest of the world stuck with the original?
A: Exactly. So Britain, Australia, New Zealand and any other English speaking nation were “sceptical” of North America’s “skepticism”.
A: By the way, this is definitely not the only time the Americans have sided with the Greek over the French in matters of spelling.
Q: Oh really?
A: Yes. Think of the words “theatre” and “centre” – both with the French influenced “-tre” ending, while America opted for the Greek “-ter” form. We could go on, but we’d be here all night.
Q: It’s 7 in the morning.
A: Oh? We really must put windows in this room.
Q: Any other fun “sceptic” facts for me?
A: Hmmm, well “sceptic” and its variations are the only “sce–” words where you would pronounce the hard “c” sound. In other words like “scenery” or “scent”, it’s silent.
Q: So the rule is that it’s K for North America and C for everywhere else?
A: That’s it. So, here in Australia, you’d spell it “climate change sceptic”.
Q: I can think of other words I’d use instead…
If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!