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Monday, August 15, 2011

Or we could just say "famous"...

As you might guess, since I spent a large chunk of my life writing dictionaries, I'm a pretty good speller. But there's one fairly common word that I always have to think twice about and double-check in a dictionary before I write it: renown. Clearly I am not alone in this, as a Google search revealed the following hits:

renown: 2.4 million
reknown: 9 million
renoun: 406,000 (this spelling is my particular downfall)

renowned: 133 million (40 million of them in "world-renowned")
reknowned: 9 million (about 3.5 million of them in "world-reknowned")
renouned: 11 million (about 4.5 million of them in "world-renouned")

Probably lots of the "reknown" hits were in sources saying "this is a misspelling", but still the number is staggering. If the numbers for "renowned" weren't so decisive, lexicographers would have to start thinking about whether they should change the spelling of "renown" to "reknown".

What a quick Google search cannot reveal is how frequent another problem is: using "world-renown" as an adjective, as in "world-renown scientist", when it should be "world-renowned".

Bob Hanna, world-renowned philosopher
Just this morning I saw an article in The Australian referring, with wild disregard of spelling,  to a "world-reknown philosopher" (yes, there are such things, apparently).

Clearly I haven't come up with a good mnemonic for this one, as it's still a stumbling block for me. Somehow, "celebrity philosopher" doesn't seem like an option. I remind myself there is no "k" (which seems to be the biggest problem) by remembering that the word in French is renommée, but that will only help you if you speak French.  But I still want to spell it with a "u" rather than a "w". Thank goodness for dictionaries! Don't rely on your spellchecker, as, interestingly, the reproving red spellchecker squiggly did not show up in either my word-processing program or my email program for the misspelled words above.

I guess we can at least be thankful  that we are not lumbered with the spelling proposed by16th century pedants who loved sticking extra silent letters into English words to reflect their Latin origins (God knows where they got the "p", though): "renoumpn"!


  1. Hello,

    For me, the big question would be if this word is related to "know", or to "name" (or "noun") and how.

    Thank you.

  2. It comes from the French renommee, which comes ultimately from Latin nominare, so not derived from either English "know" or "name" (though cognate with "name" if you go far enough back).


About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.