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Friday, February 20, 2015

How do you pronounce "schedule"?

SKED or SHED? The pronunciation of the word "schedule" is something that provokes quite virulent debate, with some members of each camp feeling that only theirs is "correct". Why people get so dogmatic about these things, I don't know.

So what's the scoop (or is it the shoop)?

The word came into English legal and official language from French in the 1300s, at which time it was written "sedule" or "cedule" (plus other variants) and meant "a slip of paper containing writing". The first syllable was pronounced the only way it could be pronounced: "SED". In modern French cédule is still pronounced this way, and most European languages other than English followed suit, adapting for their own particular phonology (s, ch, ts...), with no intrusive k sound:
Provençal cedula, cedola
Spanish cédula
Portuguese cedula
Italian cedola
German Zettel 
Dutch cedel 
Swedish sedel
Danish seddel

Why did we English speakers mess things up? French had acquired this word, like most of its vocabulary, from Latin, and this was the root of the problem. In Latin, the word was  scedula (in medieval and modern Latin also written schedula), a diminutive of Latin sceda (medieval Latin also scheda), a page or a strip of papyrus. This was probably a back-formation from schedium (an impromptu speech) in turn derived from Greek  schedios (casual);. In Latin, the first syllable was pronounced SKAYD. But in the passage from Latin to French, the "K" sound had fallen out of the word.

As regular Wordlady readers know, Latin messed up our spelling big time the 16th century. Scholars of the time looked at the original Latin and Greek words from which many English words were ultimately derived and said, "Hey! We should spell our English words like that too [so that people will know I'm really smart and know Latin]!". So, sensible old "sedule" had to be changed to "scedule" or the even more popular "schedule". People still pronounced it "sedule", though (much as we still pronounce  "debt" as "det" despite that interloping Latin "b"), until well into the 19th century.

This is the point at which the SHED/SKED schism (SHIZZM? SIZZM? SKIZZM?) took place. Noah Webster convinced his American compatriots that the pronunciation should reflect the Greek origin of the word, and follow the example of similarly Greek-derived "school" and "scheme". In Britain, however, the SED pronunciation morphed into a SHED. 

We Canadians? Of COURSE we have to have both pronunciations. When we surveyed people for the Canadian Oxford Dictionary on this question, we found that more Canadians said "SKED" than "SHED", but that both pronunciations exist. The "SHED" crew tend to think that the "SKED" lot are traitors to Canadian nationality, having adopted an American pronunciation. This is quite a ridiculous attitude to take, as we don't feel the same way about the vast majority of Canadians who say "toMAYto" like Americans rather than "toMAHto" like the British. I say "SHED", by the way, but am unperturbed by those who say "SKED".

The now most common meaning of "schedule", a timetable, is a fairly recent development, dating only from the mid-19th century in the US. From being an official piece of paper in the Middle Ages, "schedule" came to apply to tabular listings of figures (which is why we have "schedules" to attach to our income tax returns). With the coming of the railways, it was a handy word to use for tabular timetables. 

Another thing that happened to "schedule" in the 19th century as a result of the railways was that it started to be used (here comes my hobbyhorse) as ... gasp... a verb. Noun-verb conversions, what would we do without them? Indeed, having now finished writing this, I am moving my cursor over to ... schedule it for publication.

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  1. My dad [who would have been 100 last year, but only made it to 97] had British parents, though he was born and brought up in Vancouver, pronounced it in true Canadian fashion, "shed", except when referring to a "sked" run [this being a military term]. The red fruit, however was, as is now, not open to variance from the British; similarly the splinter in your finger must never be called a sliver for fear of being déclassé.

  2. Thanks for posting this! No one ever commented on my pronunciation of schedule when I lived in Ontario, but since moving to Manitoba I now frequently have people point out (or laugh at) my "strange" pronunciation. I'm happy to have an answer now as to why it might be different but it's not at all wrong.

  3. I love how vocabulary and pronunciation changes over generations. In Oz we have both pronunciations with a slight difference in meaning. SK- is something that needs to be followed with military precision and will not change according to the weather or any outside change. SH- is like a programme that (no doubt) could change depending on outside forces. Crazy, hey? However, that's how it is here!

    1. fascinating. I had never heard that distinction. thanks for sharing

    2. Wish that existed everywhere!

  4. The Japanese loan-word is スケジュール (sked...) so when interpreting into English I often catch myself worrying whether this is a false friend and I should switch to shed... But here in the UK I encounter both regularly, and actually use both myself. It was therefore quite surprising to hear the clear US/UK divide at http://www.forvo.com/word/schedule/#en

  5. So why is it skool bus not shool bus?

  6. School came into English when it was still Anglo-Saxon, and it came directly from Latin where it was pronounced SKOLA. In Anglo-Saxon it was spelled scol and pronounced SKOLE. The h was added in the Renaissance to reflect the Greek origin of the word but has never had any influence on the pronunciation.

  7. What is the point of language rules (for those of us who did not study languages in such depth as you did or know so much history), if there are random exceptions like this. All the other "sch" words (in my vocabulary as a native Afrikaans speaking person) is pronounced "sk". Are there other examples of "sch" words that is pronounced "sh"? #LoveFromSouthAfrica


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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.