Thanksgiving Victuals

Thanksgiving ClipartThis week many of us are thinking about or shopping for Thanksgiving victuals. If, that is, we are people who use the word victuals. Otherwise, we’re thinking about or shopping for food.

The word victual(s) is on my mind not because it is Thanksgiving week but instead because a Lingua Franca reader mentioned the word in response to my column about spelling reform and supercede/supersede. The anonymous commenter noted that the spelling supercede probably wasn’t going to be the end of civilization (agreed) and then added: “But I would steer clear of *artic and most other attempts at ‘phonetic’ spelling. Especially britches, likker, vittles, and other variants that serve only to exhibit the writer’s ignorance of how breeches, liquor, victuals, etc. are pronounced.” Another commenter piped in that vittles is arguably a better representation of how the word victuals is pronounced.

The standard pronunciation of victuals in the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary and the Online American Heritage Dictionary is “vittles” (to provide a phonetic spelling). There would be, obviously, no way to glean that pronunciation from the standard spelling.

This word comes up when I teach phonology in my introductory linguistics course because together the students and I read the poem “English is Tough Stuff” (which has been circulating on the Internet for years). The poem captures why English spelling cannot be used as an entirely reliable predictor of pronunciation, and one stanza includes these lines:

Query does not rhyme with very,
Nor does fury sound like bury.
Dost, lost, post and doth, cloth, loth.
Job, nob, bosom, transom, oath.
Though the differences seem little,
We say actual but victual.

I ask students to read the poem aloud in class, and it is hard not to have your eye tangle up your tongue as you read aloud lists of words like “dost, lost, post.” And victual catches students almost every time, even though the rhyme with little should give away the pronunciation. As we pause over the word, students often report that: (a) this is not a word they have encountered often; and (b) when they have encountered the word, they have not connected this spelling on the page with the word they have heard in spoken language.

Fifteen years ago, when the cat food Tender Vittles was still being sold at local pet stores, students often were surprised that victuals was how that word was “supposed to be” spelled.

The word victuals has dropped dramatically in use over the past 200 years, as captured in the graph below from the Google Books Ngram Viewer. The word appears 84 times in the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), all in the written language and most frequently in fiction. The form victual (“food fit for human consumption” as defined in the Online American Heritage Dictionary) appears only four times, and two of those are the verb form (“to provide with food”).

victuals copy

I think we might have an even better case for reforming the word victuals than we have for supersede. After all, the spelling “victual” is the result of conscious meddling to begin with. The word was borrowed into English from the Old French vitaille in the 14th century. As the word was “Englishified,” the stress shifted to the first syllable, which gave rise to the pronunciation we have now with an unstressed schwa in the second syllable. The c was then introduced into the word’s spelling in the 16th century to reflect its Latin source victuālia; the u was introduced around the same time. In other words, victual was a new spelling designed to show erudition, to distinguish those who knew the word’s etymology. (The spelling victaille was also circulating in Old French by the 14th century, also influenced by the Latin origin.)

In this case, the respelling never changed the English pronunciation — versus a word like falcon, where the reintroduction of the l in the Renaissance based on the Latin falcōn changed the word’s pronunciation; it was faucon in Middle English, based on the Old French borrowing.

The Merriam-Webster Unabridged online has vittle as a variant of victual, and the Online American Heritage Dictionary lists vittle as a nonstandard variant of victual. Honestly, I think it might be time to list vittle(s) as a standard variant in the victual entry (as opposed to cross-referenced). After all, vittles is already in many of the same publications where victuals appears: It is in COCA 64 times (a handful of which refer to Tender Vittles and a few others to the military airlift Operation Vittles), including fiction, newspapers, and magazines.

Were we to accept both victual and vittle as standard spellings of this now not-so-common word, we could still tell the entertaining story of Renaissance meddling with this word, and we could allow the modern reflex of the word’s earlier spellings (vitall, vittail, vetayle, vitell, vittell, etc. — there used to be a lot more variability in English spelling) to be acknowledged as educated too.


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