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This blog is about the fascinating, fun, and challenging things about the English language. I hope to entertain you and to help you with problems or just questions you might have with spelling and usage. I go beyond just stating what is right and what is wrong, and provide some history or some tips to help you remember. Is something puzzling you? Feel free to email me at wordlady.barber@gmail.com.
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Sunday, August 1, 2010

Florist on a bike: a pedalling petal peddler

I was just up at a resort on Georgian Bay where I got some exercise with a pedal boat -- or, as the spelling-challenged resort called it, a peddle boat. Pedal and peddle are two different words. Where feet are involved with pushing a lever (as in a bicycle, or an organ, piano, sewing machine, etc.) the spelling is "pedal". It derives from a Latin word meaning "foot", pes, which became ped- when it combined with a suffix. It also turns up in "pedestrian".

When you're talking about selling something, possibly door-to-door, often drugs, or even more notionally when you are trying to promote an idea, the word and spelling you want is peddle. This seems to be what we call a "back-formation" from the noun "pedlar" (usually spelled "peddler" in North America). Unfortunately we don't know the origin of this word for sure.

For speakers of North American English, there is a third word in this series of homophones (words that sound the same but are spelled differently): petal, the part of a flower (which comes quite boringly from the Latin petalum meaning the same thing).

So, how to keep these straight if you keep mixing them up?

Here are a couple of mnemonics (memory devices) I have thought up. Do let me know if they help!

Pedal (foot thing). Think bicycles (the thing that comes first to most people's minds when they think about pedals). Have a really vivid image in your brain of Albert Einstein riding a bicycle (or if you know someone called Al, you can put him on the bike in your mental image). Slap a T-shirt on Einstein with his name, AL, in big letters on the back. Those of you who like acronyms can try the following Tour de France-inspired one: Practically Every Day Armstrong Leads: P.E.D.A.L.
With either of these mnemonics you associate "-al" with bicycles, and thus with other foot-controlled things.

Peddle (sell). We don't really have old-fashioned peddlers with their vans full of assorted goods anymore. When we use the verb "peddle", we're more likely to be speaking of someone peddling heroin. Who peddles? Drug dealers. Perhaps this alliterative compound with a double D will help you remember that "peddle" is not for bikes, but it is for selling (although it probably won't be an approved mnemonic for use in Ontario schools).

Petal (flower). Think of other flower-related words: stem, plant, leaf, flower, (if you're really into botany or want to show off, you'll know stamen and pistil, anther, calyx and styles as well, but if you can spell them already you're probably not having difficulty with "petal"). Do you see a letter D anywhere? Nope! And in fact, what letter does turn up in a lot of these flower words? Yes! T! So, if we're talking flowers, it's petal with a T!

Now, what about that word "soft-pedal" (or is it "soft-peddle"?) meaning "tone down, go easy on"? It is in fact "soft-pedal", the image being of a pianist using the pedal that reduces the volume of the note being played.

As for the resort, a further complication in the case of those boats that you propel with pedals is that they are also called "paddle boats" (presumably because you paddle about in them). In most North American pronunciations, short e's and short a's are very close together, so that "paddle" is a very close homophone of pedal, peddle, and petal.

But whatever they are, they aren't "peddle boats"!


  1. Hi Aunt Kate!

    Thanks for checking out my blog! I very much like your blog, this particular post involving pedal boats (not "peddle" boats) caught my eye because my mom was telling me about a particular mishap she recently had with just such a pedal boat - and I believe you were witness to this mishap? :-)

    I hope all is well, I'm now off to check out your ballet tour blog.


  2. If your mother had been less charitable, she would have mentioned that I was not just the witness but the CAUSE of her mishap with the pedal/paddle boat!

  3. If you are talking about the person riding a bike or a paddle boat, would that be a pedlar or a pedaler? We want to name my dad's paddle boat "Papa's Pedaler". Would that be correct or would it be "Papa's Pedlar"? The grandkids would either be "Papa's Pedalers" or "Papa's Pedlars". Thanks for your help!! I at least know that they aren't "Papa's Peddlers" (which is how we originally were going to spell it!!)


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.