Words Plagued by Unusual Silent Letters

The scourge of spellers, silent letters are often a stumbling block when learning how to write in English. To the modern eye, it's unclear what these letters are doing in the words in question, and learners sometimes simply have to memorize them. But the silent letters are very often hidden remnants of how the words passed through different languages on their way to English. Here are 20 words that prove that English spelling is far from rational
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definitions & notes only words
  1. chthonic
    dwelling beneath the surface of the earth
    Sartre's chthonic allegory bears a striking resemblance, in fact, to the sort of living hell that many acne sufferers report experiencing on an everyday basis.
    —Slate Apr 18, 2011
    Greek-derived words often feature tricky consonant clusters that don't get pronounced that way in English. This word (from Greek kthon, meaning "earth"), tends to lose its initial "k" sound and ends up sounding like thonic.
  2. phlegm
    saliva mixed with discharges from the respiratory passages
    Rarely a minute goes by during a game where you do not see a footballer depositing various levels of phlegm on the pitch.
    —BBC Jun 26, 2014
    The "g" sound was lost when Latin phlegma became Old French fleume. But the silent "g" still  gets pronounced in variations on the word, such as  phlegmatic, which means "showing little emotion."
  3. pterodactyl
    extinct flying reptile
    Sportswriters, struggling to describe him, have compared him to capellini and a pterodactyl.
    —New York Times Nov 8, 2012
    The first part of this word is from pteron, Greek for "feather" or "wing." The second part comes from daktylos meaning "finger."
  4. muscle
    animal tissue consisting predominantly of contractile cells
    Like a muscle, your decision-making ability is strengthened with consistent practice. 
    —Forbes (Jun 30, 2014)
    It comes from Latin musculus, literally meaning "little mouse," but the "c" went silent when the word entered French.
  5. mnemonic
    of or relating to the practice of aiding the memory
    In this science activity you'll try out a technique called mnemonics—a memory boosting strategy.
    —Scientific American Dec 19, 2013
    The word is from the Greek  mnemonikos, "pertaining to memory." The mn- consonant cluster proved too tricky in the languages that have borrowed the word and was simplified to an "n" sound.
  6. asthma
    respiratory disorder characterized by wheezing
    "However, some kids can't take the mist, namely those with compromised immune systems and kids with asthma, who could have a respiratory response," he said.
    —US News Jun 26, 2014
    This word, dating from the late 14th century, used to be spelled as it is pronounced, asma. It was only in the 16th century that the "th" was reintroduced to the English spelling, to make it like the Latin and Greek spellings.
  7. apropos
    of an appropriate or pertinent nature
    In fact, comparison to high tech is apropos because like the Internet, the shale boom is re-shaping the world.
    —Forbes Aug 20, 2013
    From French, like rendezvous and faux below, where final consonants are often silent.
  8. receipt
    an acknowledgment that payment has been made
    Of course, I have no pictures or even my rental agreement or receipt to dispute this.
    —Seattle Times Jun 16, 2014
    In the Anglo-French spoken by the Norman conquerors, the word was spelled receite. The spelling eventually changed in English to add a "p" (bringing it into line with the Latin root recepta), but the pronunciation stayed the same.
  9. knead
    manually manipulate, for medicinal or relaxation purposes
    He oiled himself with warm, peppered coconut oil, kneading his old, loose flesh that stretched willingly off his bones like chewing gum.
    —The God of Small Things
    This comes from the Old English verb cnedan and Middle English kneden. But like other kn- words like knight and know, the "k" went silent in Modern English.
  10. honest
    marked by truth
    I have been open and honest since the beginning with my feelings and desires.
    —Slate Jul 1, 2014
    The root is Latin honestus, meaning "honorable," ultimately from honos, also the source of honor. And like honor, the initial "h" sound was lost in the French versions of the word on their way to English.
  11. gnaw
    bite or chew on with the teeth
    Soon they got the furniture burning merrily, and Nailer cut slices of ham for them to gnaw on.
    —Ship Breaker
    This started out in Old English as gnagan. Just as kn- words from earlier eras of English lost their "k," gn- words were also simplified to the "n" sound.
  12. subtle
    difficult to detect or grasp by the mind or analyze
    Meanwhile, fMRI gathers information about the location of subtle changes in brain blood oxygenation.
    —Scientific American Jul 1, 2014
    Like receipt, this is what happens when you make the spelling imitate Latin but forget about the pronunciation. French had lost the "b" in Latin subtilis ("fine"), resulting in sotil, which was then remade to look (but not sound) like the Latin original.
  13. solemn
    dignified and somber in manner or character
    Newt, all grim and solemn, was waiting for Thomas at the top of the stairwell.
    —The Maze Runner
    As with phlegm above, the silent n in solemn gets pronounced in related words like solemnity.
  14. faux
    not genuine or real
    The video is the epitome of male entitlement and an excellent example of faux apology.
    —Time Jun 23, 2014
    In Old French, Latin falsus ("false") became fals or faus, eventually leading to faux with a silent "x."
  15. rendezvous
    a meeting planned at a certain time and place
    The ease and rapidity with which this meeting was set up made me suspect that the government might have planned this rendezvous ahead of time.
    —Long Walk to Freedom
    This is from the French phrase rendez vous, meaning "present yourselves." Following the French pronunciation, both the "z" and "s" go silent.
  16. autumn
    the season when the leaves fall from the trees
    Several typhoons a year strike Japan, but they usually develop later in the summer or in early autumn.
    —The Guardian Jul 8, 2014
    The "n" that is silent here gets pronounced in Autumnal.
  17. column
    a line of units following one after another
    His authority derived from the column of military vehicles that stood outside their headquarters, and from the cache of weapons his rebels had stored inside.
    —Time July 6, 2014
    The silent "n" gets pronounced in Columnar.
  18. condemn
    express strong disapproval of
    The right response is to get better at catching and resolving errors faster, not to condemn the system.
    —Washington Post July 7, 2014
    The "n" is pronounced in Condemnation.
  19. resign
    accept as inevitable
    On July 4, delegates to the national meeting of the National Education Association called on Duncan to resign.
    —Washington Post, July 7, 2014
    The "n" gets pronounced in words like Resignation.
  20. bomb
    an explosive device fused to explode under specific conditions
    Never did we dream that shortly the bombs would fall on a faraway harbor whose name struck a chill across our own small, landlocked Pearl.The Poisonwood Bible

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