Thursday, October 7, 2010

Told you spelling was hard

Loanwords from other tongues make up significant part of English - as they do many other languages - and not surprisingly words from the natives of the east coast of North America were an early example. For instance, Algonquian terms like skunk and manitou (a deity) were recorded in English in 1588. By 1607, the language had already picked up such still-common words as moccasin, totem, moose, opossum, and tomahawk.

But apparently some adoptions were more difficult than others. According to David Crystal in "The Stories of English" (2004), in 1608 a London printer published an account of an early exploration of Virginia by Captain John Smith. In a story about his visit to the Powhatan Indians, he describes the chief as "richly hung with Manie Chaynes of great Pearles about his necke," and covered with a blanket made from skins of an animal Smith called a "rahaughcum."

During Smith's time, spelling wasn't exactly a refined art, but "rahaughcum? Can you figure out which animal he meant?

Answer: Smith's was the first English spelling of "raccoon." (Crystal, a Brit, spelled it "racoon.)

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