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THERE’S NO RULE

English spelling is often strange, at times crazy. I’ve been looking at some off-the scale oddities. The spur was an enquiry: why is Toronto’s leading ice hockey team the Maple Leafs, so spelt and so spoken, and not Maple Leaves? I began by wondering why one leaf becomes several leaves anyway. Answer: the English of 1,000 years ago, it seems, pronounced both plural and singular with a v sound. Fair enough, if they had then applied a bit of logic, and treated all similar words similarly. But they didn’t. Sure, one sheaf becomes many sheaves, one thief many thieves. And we have calf/calves, half/halves, shelf/shelves, and loaf/loaves. Yet we also have belief/beliefs, grief/griefs, and others. Still, turn these latter nouns into verbs and they too adopt the letter v: we believe or grieve, just as we may thieve or halve, and a cow will calve. Hurrah, there’s some logic here, however odd, isn’t there?

Not much. Counsel get briefs, bosses are briefed, spelt and spoken with an f. To avoid the reefs, a ship reefs its sails. Houses are roofed. Worse, in double defiance of our would-be logic, while I sweep leaves, you may be leafing through a book, with an f; or eat loaves, yet loaf around. And there’s more. Though the builder roofs houses, spoken as it is spelt, the results are pronounced rooves, just like a horse’s hoofs. And though roofs has only one spelling, hoofs can also be spelt hooves. Hoofs ruled the roost until about 1900, but by 1920 hooves was quite common, and still is.

Likewise, 1930’s Snow White had seven dwarfs, so spelt, though spoken with a v; but they can also be spelt dwarves — albeit dwarfed, with an f sound, by Miss White. And while Americans use beefs, pronounced thus, for complaints, they also have beeves — cattle — spelt and pronounced with a v. These latter would be beefs in Britain, but with a v sound.

In sum, to odd spellings and pronunciation, English adds rival spellings of the same word. There are other instances, quite apart from such transatlantic spelling differences as honour and honor, travelled and traveled, defence and defense. Most obviously, should one use learned or learnt, burned or burnt, spilled or spilt, spelled or spelt, leaned or leant, dreamed or dreamt, and several other such rival verb-forms?

A century ago, President Theodore Roosevelt tried to make America’s official printers use only the -t forms. He failed, and Americans now tend to favour the -d form. Britons are divided. Often, the only issue is pronunciation: -t or -d (and, with lean and dream and leapt, the vowel sound too)? But some verbs offer subtle distinctions; I usually say I burned the toast or spilled the milk, yet I’d always call the result burnt toast or spilt milk. But there’s no rule here.

Meaning can decide which spelling is right: as in bereaved of his wife, he felt bereft of everything, or the sea heaved and the ship hove to. Word-origin can play a part. In he weaved through the crowd and wove the cloth, the two weaves have different histories. Ditto cleave, “split”, and cleave, “adhere”. Both now generally use cleaved, but the “split” sense has two other past participles: cleft, as with palates or sticks; cloven, like hoofs.

And so back to Toronto’s Maple Leafs. Officially, it’s Maple Leaf Hockey Club, one leaf. But many North American sports clubs have plural names or nicknames: eg, the Bostons, as 19th-century reporters would call some team from Boston, or today’s Chicago White Sox, another odd spelling, invented by headline-writers to save space. But why Leafs? One tale says the name, adopted in 1927, came from a World War I Canadian “Maple Leaf Regiment” whose men were known as “the Leafs”. Alas, no such regiment existed. And Maple Leafs had been used decades earlier (and still is) by a Toronto baseball club. A likelier answer is that one doesn’t apply the dictionary to proper names: a British family surnamed Child is collectively the Childs, not the Children. The real answer? No one can say.