Compound words are easy to say, right?

Sunshine. Milestone. Crossword.

Not so fast, according to this great article from “The Week.”

English in all its wisdom has moments when it’s like French with an overabundance of silent letters, or at least, letters that one mashes together into one nasally syllable. As words have fallen out of common usage, we’ve forgotten how to say these words, or when we say them, we have no idea about the companion spelling

Not all of these examples are compound words, but many of them are which leads to the trip-ups.

Like “boatswain.” We know how to say “boat.” Depending on what we read, we might even know “swain” (sweyn… n., a male lover or country gallant.) So it should figure that this word would be “boat-sweyn” but instead we get the lovely pronounciation of “bosun.”

As the article notes:

Sailors were generally not famed for their high levels of literacy. It was a lower-class, lower-paying job. So they didn’t really keep the spelling of the words they said in mind. And when they said them often, the words would get worn down, as often happens in language. It’s a bit of a bother to have to say “boat swain” every time you’re talking about the ship’s officer in charge of equipment. So even before the time of Shakespeare, this word had gotten trimmed to “bosun” — and sometimes written that way. But it was very important for some language pedants at that time, and for a couple of centuries after, to show the origins of words in their spelling. So this one was preserved as boatswain.

Thanks to a series of adventure stories I wrote a good decade ago, I knew some of these (waistcoat and forecastle… they were having a well-dressed adventure on a tall ship in one part)  but others like Worchester will always trip me up.


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