Adventures in English Spelling


The dreaded “spelling bee”


From time to time, some English word will suddenly, out of the blue, strike me as weird.


Today, I’ve been pondering the word one.


Are there any other words in English — perhaps, if I were speaking, I should say “any wother“? — in which an initial “o” is pronounced as if it were a “w“?


“I wonly have eyes for you.”


“This is a golden wopportunity.”


“Shakespeare’s tragedy Wothello.  Or was it really written by the Earl of Woxford?”


“President Wobama.”


The possibilities are endless.


And if you add a “t” to one, you get tone.  Makes sense, doesn’t it?  Rhymes with sewn.  And, of course, with loan.  And blown.  But if you remove the “bl-” from blown, you get own.  Then take the “t” from tone and add it to own, and you get . . . town.


Seriously.  English has to be one — won? — of the most bizarre of all alphabetically-written languages in terms of its worthography.  I marvel that anybody — including native speakers — ever learns to spell English words correctly.


Do they even have “spelling bees” in Germany, Austria, Spain, or Italy?  I honestly — note the silent “h“! — don’t know.  Surely, I imagine, they don’t need to spend as much time on spelling as English-speaking schoolchildren do.  Instead, they can use that time to learn mathematics and other languages — subjects in which, by the way, les Américains pretty consistently rank at or near the bottom of the international heap.


Postscript:  Just for the record, so that you know that this post doesn’t come from personal bitterness, I don’t believe that I ever failed to take first place in a spelling bee.  If I did, I don’t remember it.  I was, and am, a good speller.  But it seems rather a silly skill to have to master.



  • Virginia Brown

    I must just add a resounding “oui!” to your complaints about English orthography. The diversity of our linguistic heritage is a blessing and a curse.

  • Ryan

    “This is a golden wopportunity.”

    I laughed out loud. Sounds like a shady business proposition. A whopper of an opportunity: a whoppertunity.

  • RaymondSwenson

    While spoken Japanese has a direct correspondence to its syllabary in which the letters represent a consonant plus one of the five vowels, written Japanese suffers because the were offshore from China instead of Europe. You need to learn at least 1850 kanji ideograms to read the newspaper, and college grads need another 1000. And many kanji have two different pronunciations, one from Japanese and the other derived from Chinese. You have no idea how much the advent of computers has made it easier for the Japanese to write, transmit and read their written language.

  • brotheroflogan

    I think it comes from the interaction between the words “no” and “one” when you say “no one.” If you try to say “no un” it’s hard to not have a “w” sound in between them without having an unnatural pause in speaking. “No (breath) un.”

    • DanielPeterson

      And, of course, there are “everyone” and “someone.”


  • Ed Ludeman

    I have frequently lamented the fact that even “phonetically” is not spelled “fenetiklee” or even with a schwa

  • Hadley V. Baxendale

    I’ve read several books on the history of the English language and it was interesting to find out why we have words in English that make us scratch our heads: ox and oxen, but not dog and dogen, or dog and dogs but not ox and oxes. English is not only a collection of foreign words but also words that kept their usage in different parts of England. And also the occupation of parts of England by the Norse for 400 years definitely had an effect. Lastly, of course, the Norman invasion where the ruling aristocracy spoke French and the Saxons spoke “English” until Normandy was conquered by the French and Norman Kings were isolated in England (which explains why in legalese we have “last will and testament” (saxon and French roots). So many rules rooted in history. English is a brilliant language. が、私も日本語が大好きです。

    • Kenngo1969

      Not only are you a fan of the English language, but also a fan of English contract law, I see! ;-D

  • Ellis Rygg

    “English doesn’t borrow from other languages.
    English follows other languages down dark alleys, knocks them over and
    goes through their pockets for loose grammar.” — James Nicoll

  • Ray Agostini

    Dan, I have to share a funny story that highlights “language barriers”. A Chinese cab driver workmate of mine, still struggling to learn English properly, was approached on a rank by a lady who asked him, “are you free?” He adamantly replied, “NO, no, not free! Go to next cab.” When the driver behind realised the misinterpretation, he graciously sent the lady back to the Chinese driver.

    • DanielPeterson

      Ah, ambiguity! One of the major sources for jokes.

  • RaymondSwenson

    A friend and colleague of mine met his wife in Kazakhstan. When they moved to the US, she saw a beautiful array of flowers by the highway, with a prominent sign stating “Fine for picking flowers”–so she picked some! A traffic patrolman happened by and gave her a language lesson on the way English words can embody their own antonyms, such as “sanction” and “cleave”.

  • Rosalie

    Answer to your initial question: ONCE

  • Joanne Rudling

    Yep, one and once are problem words because they’re pronounced with a /w/ but the other members of the word family with the letter pattern ‘on’ aren’t: one – once – only – none – alone – lonely

    The /w/ sound was added to one and once in popular speech somewhere between 1150 – 1476 (Middle English period) and became standard in the 17th Century. Many academics didn’t like this /w/ pronunciation and thought it ‘barbarous’!

    English spelling is weird and wonderful!

    Check my spelling channel Howtospelluk and “Why there’s a w in two” video –