Thanksgiving Victuals

This 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...

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