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Discover this week’s WOW

Posted in: Spelling, Words, WOW by Sally Evans-Darby on 10 May 2012

Word of the Week

This week’s WOW is diminutive (adj.): small; little; tiny.

Prompting me to highlight this word this week is a spelling mistake I came across on a Trivial Pursuit question card (yes, I admit, it is one of my all-time favourite board games). There on the card, printed for posterity, was diminutive spelled with an extra ‘i’ – ‘diminuitive’.

Trivial Pursuit strikes me as the kind of board game you can trust (even if some of the answers seem implausible), and as my opponent concurred with the spelling when I queried it with him, I made for the dictionary.

Of course I couldn’t help feeling smug when the dictionary confirmed that ‘diminutive’ with only three i’s was correct and both Trivial Pursuit and my rather knowledgeable opponent had been mistaken. But it led me to wonder why there might be an instinct to spell the word with an extra ‘i’ before the ‘t’. On asking a couple of friends the next day, they also seemed to think it was spelled that way. One of them compared it to ‘miniature’, whose ‘a’ in the second syllable seems somewhat superfluous, yet there it is.

The thing is, English orthography (to use the ‘proper’ term) is so full of such discrepancies and so abundantly lacking in universal rules that you almost have to learn how to spell every word individually, rather than being able to apply a blanket spelling method. This can lead to the spelling of words like ‘diminutive’ becoming confused – and once you have that incorrect spelling in your vocabulary subconscious, it can be difficult to shift it (especially if Trivial Pursuit is corroborating it). I remember being astounded to find out that ‘minuscule’ wasn’t spelled ‘miniscule’, which had seemed to me for years the most logical way to spell it.

I’d be interested to hear others’ experiences of the wonderful minefield that is English spelling – leave your comments below.