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Friday, May 3, 2013

To B or not to B

English spelling? Baa!

This coming Sunday is Easter for Greeks, and others of the Orthodox Church. Traditionally, lamb is eaten.

Why is there a silent "b" in "lamb"?

In Old English, this "b" was pronounced, but by the end of the Middle Ages, people had stopped pronouncing it.  Quite sensibly, a few people tried spelling the word "lam" or "lamm", but English spelling has never been sensible, so we stuck with a spelling reflecting a long-dead pronunciation. The same thing happened with "comb" and "dumb", but for the word "crumb", where the explanation is different, tune in to a Wordlady post in June.

We were, however, a little more sensible with the plural form of "lamb". In Old English, this had been lomberu. In the Middle Ages, people reformed it along the lines of other irregular plurals like "children" and "brethren". So for a while we had singular lamb and plural "lambren". This, thank goodness, did not survive, as we decided to make it a regular plural ending in s.

We use the word "lamb" whether the lamb is gambolling in the fields or sitting as a chop on our plates. This is unusual in English, where for most animals we distinguish between the live and cooked versions:
Cow  - beef
Sheep - mutton
Calf - veal
Pig/swine - pork
In all these cases the first word is of English origin and the second of French origin. This is a remnant of the Norman Conquest in 1066, after which French cooking terms flooded the language. The usual explanation is that the Anglo-Saxon (English) speakers would have been tending the animals in the fields while the French speakers were roasting them in the aristocratic kitchens.

Thank you to a Wordlady reader for asking about the silent b in "lamb". If you have questions or suggestions for Wordlady, please feel free to send them to me!

Photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash


  1. So how did we from "child" to "children" and from ?? to "brethren"?

  2. The English-vs-French thing is explicated early in Scott's Ivanhoe.

  3. I have actually heard people pronounce the "b" in lamb. I'm trying to remember who, and if they were ESL or not. Is the pronounced "b" a valid pronunciation?

  4. I think lamb with a b would be considered a mistake.


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.