Column: The ‘b’ that ruined the spelling bee


Commentary by Curtis Honeycutt

Does it bother anyone else that the word “subtle” has a silent “b?” Is it ironic that the word subtle means “understated?” The “b” in subtle is, therefore, itself, subtle. Are you with me?

We don’t spell “settle” with a b. It’s the same with settle, sidle, saddle and Seattle. “B” isn’t in those words. So, why the “b,” subtle?

Subtle started out its life as the Latin word “subtilis,” which was an adjective describing the thin, delicate material used for producing a veil. Subtilis hopped on a boat to France and became “soutil” in Old French. “Soutil” meant thin and delicate. Once William the Conqueror (my 29th great-grandfather on my mom’s side) and the Normans invaded England in 1066, “soutil” made the journey across the English Channel as well, becoming “sotil” in Middle English. Its meaning grew beyond physical delicacy into how we now understand subtle in an abstract way.

So, what happened? Doesn’t it make sense to drop letters that aren’t pronounced in a word?

In the 17th century, a group of nerdy Englishmen, who were known as the Latinists, started re-spelling English words to ground them in their Latin origins (I think their mantra was “Make English Latin Again”). Because of this, they added “b,” “I” and “p” back into words that had evolved from Latin. Sotil, therefore, got its “b” added back, and it began to be spelled “subtle.” The “b,” however, stayed silent – subtle, even.

At this same time, several other words that started as Latin words ultimately arrived into the modern English lexicon with added letters. They, too, originated in Latin, then migrated into Old French and rode the Norman wave into Middle English. These words include aisle, debt, doubt, indict, salmon, plumber and receipt.

Some words, on the other hand, didn’t lose their “b”, even though the “b” was no longer pronounced. They include “bomb” and “dumb.” That seems pretty dumb, if you ask me. And, while this is frustrating, it’s only one of the myriad of complex historical reasons why English spelling is complicated and annoying. So, beware of falling under the spell of an unexpected “b”—you might just get stung by it.