Words Even College Profs Misspell

The correct spelling of certain words can escape even the scholarly, and these twelve are among the most frequently mangled.

ad nauseam  This word’s last syllable sounds like um, so most people spell it that way: ad nauseum. To speakers of Latin the word meant “to sickness.” To us it means “to an excessive degree.”

bellwether  Meaning “forerunner” or “leader,” bellwether sounds as if it should be a clangy weathervane, so it comes as no surprise that writers of all sorts often wedge an a between the second e and the t.

canvass You paint on a canvas or buy it buy the yard. You canvass for votes when you run for treasurer of The Walking Dead fan club. Cast a vote for that extra s.

desiccate Hippies who desiccate (dry) their own fruit know to give this word one s and then double the c. Less self-reliant folks are more likely to do the opposite and write the word as dessicate.

discrete  Discrete is so often misspelled as discreet you’d think these homonyms were alternative spellings of the same word.* They aren’t. Something discrete is either separate (or distinct) in form or consists of separate parts. Someone who is discreet is tactful or subtle or restrained.

ecstasy The penultimate in ecstasy is replaced by a c more often than club kids down pills. Do your old English teachers a favor and use the s.

inoculate  The  -in (“not”) starting this word triggers our in prefix reflex to double the n. The one and only n is rooted in the Latin word inoculate, meaning “implant,” though today an inoculation “injects.”

liquefy  Liquid isn’t spelled “liqued,” so why the e? Because the root of liquefy is the Old French word liquefier. Know, though, that spelling the word with the i of liquid is a perfectly acceptable alternative, as any dictionary will show.

minuscule  It only makes sense for a word meaning “very small” to start with mini-, doesn’t it?  Not in this case. The natural mnemonic for remembering the u in minuscule is in the first two syllables: minus (“less”).

restaurateur  Where did the n go, you ask? Well, an n wasn’t there to begin with. The word for the proprietor of an eatery is only slightly kin to the borrowed-from-French restaurant. The Latin root for both is restaurare, meaning “restore.”

sacrilegious  Because most of this word is pronounced the same as religious (and rightly so), even the most devout spellers tend to misspell sacrilegious. Did someone play a dirty trick and switch the e and i in the first and second syllables of religious? No, but there’s your mnemonic.

supersede  It’s no wonder so many people write this word as supercede; a spelling variant since the seventeenth century, it regularly pops up in print and online. For now, though, sticklers will want to choose the s over the c.

* For similar mixups, see Hazardous Homonyms in Spellcheck.

One Response to Words Even College Profs Misspell

  • Erik Kowal says:

    A bellwether is the leading sheep of a flock, on whose neck a bell is hung. A wether (minus bells or balls) is a castrated ram.

    A similar word exists in Danish, vædder,, meaning simply a ram.

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