15 of the hardest words to spell in the English language
The English language is full of words that seem overstuffed with unnecessary letters, feel like they should be spelled a different way, or just don’t make sense. Here are some of our favourites, explained. By Meghan Jones. Image: Getty Images
With only six letters, “dilate” really shouldn’t be hard to spell, but the way people usually pronounce it can throw spellers for a loop. Many people say “dilate” as three full syllables, “di-a-late,” leading themselves and others to add in an extra “a” while spelling it. But let’s put this easy misunderstanding to rest – there’s no such word as “dialate.”
With “indict” popping up as a buzzword in today’s political climate, for better or worse, many people find themselves doing a double take when they see it written out. Though the word is pronounced “indite,” it has a “c” in it! The legal term, whose first use dates back to around 1620, is a Latin variation on an earlier word that was spelled “indite.” To make things even more confusing, “indite” is actually still a word; it means to write or compose.
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A “sacrilegious” act is disrespectful to something of religious significance, so it makes a lot of sense to just assume without a second thought that the word is spelled “sacreligious.” But that would be too easy, now, wouldn’t it? “Sacrilegious” comes from “sacrilege,” not from “religious,” and the fact that they sound so similar is a pure linguistic coincidence. The word “sacrilege” came to be from the Latin sacri-, or “sacred,” and legere, meaning “to gather or steal.”
Like “sacrilegious,” “ingenious” is another word that’s so similar to another in both sound and meaning that people conclude that they’re spelled the same way. “Ingenious” means very clever and intelligent. A “genius” is a very clever, intelligent person. But, alas, the final syllables of “ingenious” are not spelled like “genius.” It dates back to a Latin word, ingeniosus, meaning “natural disposition.”
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Nope, it’s not “mini-scule,” no matter how much logic would suggest. It bears no linguistic relation to “mini” or “miniature” but actually comes from the Latin minus, meaning “less.”
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Like a punchy use of onomatopoeia – a technique where a word mimics a sound – in a comic book, this one speaks for itself. Between the eight vowels, the fact that you only really need half the letters that are there to make the “-pia” sound that the word ends with, or the fact that replacing the “t” with an “n,” and saying “onomanopoeia,” rolls off the tongue slightly better, this is easily one of English’s trickiest offerings.
Words with double letters are already going to be confusing; knowing which letters you double in words like “necessary,” “embarrassing,” and “millennium” is no small feat. “Accommodate” in particular can be tricky to remember since it follows a different rule from “recommend,” another word where the c’s and m’s can be sources of confusion. While “recommend” only has one “c,” “accommodate” has two of both consonants. Not to mention that accommodate’s second “o” doesn’t really make an “o” sound; you could certainly see an “a” or an “e” going in that spot, no problem.
“Conscious” and “conscience” are tricky enough to spell. Take the first eight letters of “conscience,” pronounce them differently, and add another “sh” sound created by different letters, and you’ve got a doozy of a word for “moral and principled.”
Native English spellers have gotten used to the spelling of “Wednesday,” but that doesn’t mean it isn’t still very, very strange when you think about it. What is that first “d” doing there?! Well, many English names for weekdays come from the names of old Germanic deities. Wednesday was named after the Norse god Woden, better known, at least to comic book fans, as Odin. (We have his hammer-wielding son Thor to thank for Thursday!) “Wednesday” comes from the Old English “Wōdnesdæg,” or “Woden’s Day.”
This is simply a word where if you know it, you know it. Looking quickly at this word, which means “comply or agree without question,” you might not think that first “c” needs to be there; it isn’t in words like “aquatic” or “aquiver.” You may also be tempted to throw a double “s” on the end in lieu of the “sc,” or just write the “s” with no “c.”
There’s a reason many meat packages spell it “baloney.” The word “bologna” derives from Bologna, Italy, since a similar (but fancier) type of sausage comes from that city. If you want to mimic this fanciness, that “-gn” at the end should be pronounced with a “yuh” sound. But the newer, more phonetic spelling seems to better suit thin slabs of wiener sausage.
Both the pairs of letters “sc” and “sh” have been known to make the sound that starts the second syllable of “fuchsia.” But, unfortunately for anyone who likes writing about colours or plants, “fuchsia” uses neither of those pairings, instead taking all the necessary letters and jumbling them up. The plant, whose flowers give the name to the colour, was named after esteemed German botanist Leonhard Fuchs.
There sure are a lot of vowels in “nauseous,” and it can be tricky to remember what order they go in. Even if you’ve got them straight, you may still second-guess yourself about the consonants, too. The “sh” sound makes it sound like there should be a “c” in there somewhere, like in “conscious.”