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Can ‘Supercede’ Supersede?

Last March, I posted a spelling challenge here on Lingua Franca: Which irregular spellings are you willing to part with? Earlier this term, the graduate-student instructor for my introductory English linguistics course gave this challenge to students, and we got one suggestion that had not occurred to me. And I’m sold.

If one thing replaces another thing, it supersedes it

Is that how you spell supersede? Or do you want the word to have a c and be supercede?

The spellchecker on my computer just balked at supercede, even though the spelling makes sense: it looks like cede and accede, not to mention intercede. The spelling supercede appears as a “variant” of supersede in both Merriam-Webster Online and the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language online; and both dictionaries note that the spelling is common and commonly regarded as an error.

If we think about etymology, we can see the “error”: the verbs cede and accede go back to the Latin root cēdere (‘yield, give way’), whereas supersede stems from the Latin root sēdere (‘sit’). But the Oxford English Dictionary editors note two origins of English supersede: Latin supersēdere and Middle French superceder and superseder. Note that French c. And the c-spelling has been circulating in English since the 17th century.

A search of the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) turns up 103 instances of forms of supercede, including in transcriptions of spoken language, publications in academic journals, magazine and newspaper articles, and fiction. Supersede is nine times more common, with 953 instances, but supercede is certainly sneaking its way past editors.

The word supersede regularly appears on lists of commonly misspelled words in the English language. Why not let supercede be a standard variant as opposed to a nonstandard one? It would make the red squiggly line popping up under it on my computer screen disappear, and I think many of us wouldn’t miss it.

Other spelling reform suggestions from students included vacume for vacuum. That double u is certainly odd in English — and very distinctive. Nowhere else in English does uu get to represent the sound “yoo,” so why not let the rhyme govern the spelling and make vacume align with fume? I understand this logic; I will also admit to being more attached to the spelling vacuum than I am to supersede. (I’m not sold that the plural form vacua, still listed in the OED, American Heritage, and Merriam-Webster, is relevant. COCA pulls up one instance from a physics journal, and my spellchecker rejects vacua.)

Students affirmed the variant donut for doughnut, and the Google Books Ngram Viewer shows donut rapidly gaining on the traditional spelling.

donut copy

Some students argued for womyn/wemyn, in order to give women a word of their own, not visually linked to man/men, even if the etymological link is there. (This suggestion has circulated for at least a few decades as part of nonsexist-language-reform efforts.) And a few students suggested undoing the meddling from hundreds of years ago and taking the c out of indict. The Middle English form of this verb was endite, and the c was inserted in the Renaissance to reflect the Latin verb indictāre. That respelling never affected the pronunciation, and it has become, students argued, a spelling shibboleth. Why not spell it indite as part of making legal jargon more accessible to people?

Letting indite supercede indict feels like an uphill battle, even though that change has nice historical precedent. But letting supercede remain in a sentence like the previous one seems very do-able. I’m going to shift my attention instead to the question of whether supersede/supercede can now be intransitive, as it is in the title of this post — such that a reformed spelling doesn’t just supercede its predecessor, it simply supercedes.

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