Friday, October 2, 2015

Correct Spelling?

I’m working on a book in which an egg hatches a caterpillar.  I want to describe the egg as miniscule.   My spell checker immediately changes it to minuscule.  When I insist that I want miniscule, the word gets a red underline as an error.

So, I looked it up.

Merriam-Webster says:

“Usage Discussion of MINISCULE

The adjective minuscule is etymologically related to minus, but associations with mini- have produced the spelling variant miniscule. This variant dates to the end of the 19th century, and it now occurs commonly in published writing, but it continues to be widely regarded as an error.”  

The OED says:

The word was originally minuscule, borrowed from French. The minuscule spelling has always been the preferred spelling. However, miniscule is not as simple as a typo. According to the OED, the first citation of the miniscule variant is from 1871, so this is a form that has been around quite a long time.

The OED says the following about miniscule:

Variant of MINUSCULE adj., probably arising partly from shift of stress from the second to the first syllable, and partly from association with MINIATURE adj., MINIMUM adj., etc.
So, there are two reasons that miniscule persists as a variant.

The first is the shift in stress. In English, unstressed vowels are often reduced to schwa, [?], no matter what the fully stressed vowel would have been. Minuscule used to always be pronounced with stress on the second syllable (containing the "u"), and was therefore unambiguously an [u] sound. When minuscule began to get stress on the first syllable, it was no longer clear from hearing the word what the second vowel was.

The second was the existence of semantically similar words that contained the spelling mini, such as miniature and minimum. The word mini is associated with small things.

Therefore, a person spelling the word minuscule, having no auditory cues to indicate the spelling "minu", and knowing other smallness words contain "mini", has every logical reason to think the spelling should be "minuscule".


This is a book for children. Am I obliged to use the “correct spelling” or may I get away with the “logical spelling.”

Why does it matter if words are spelled in various ways, if the reader can understand what is meant?  How long does it take for a spelling to become accepted?  1871 is 144 years ago. Do I want to be part of the spelling police, and use the “correct spelling” when I didn’t even know it existed until a few hours ago?

What exactly do I want to pass on to the children who read my book?  Love of butterflies, yes. Love of words, yes.  I have always loved the word miniscule.   And until today I did not know it could be spelled any other way. 

I am sharing the world I love in this book.  Some child may lose the National Spelling Bee if I use the non-standard spelling of minuscule. Is this a reason to continue using a spelling that makes no sense?

And no, I don’t want to use a synonym, like minute or tiny.  I want to use the word that best expresses the smallness of the egg.

I’ve always had a problem with authority.  Now the problem is which authority – my own sense of the right spelling, or that of a dictionary?

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