Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The writes of the unborn child

I’ve just been arbitrating a debate about whether ‘foetus’ or ‘fetus’ is correct in UK spelling. Needless to say, this is how I always dreamed my life would turn out.

‘Fetus’ is technically right – the etymology is the Latin word of the same spelling, and the English usage dates back to 1398. The OED has traced ‘Foetus’ in English back to at least 1594 – but its earliest known use was in Latin, in seventh-century Seville, where it was either a typo (OK, a quillo) or an ineptly pretentious adornment.

The rise of ‘foetus’ was pretty much guaranteed when Samuel Johnson’s 1755 dictionary included it. Nowadays, it’s in much wider use in the UK mainstream, although ‘fetus’ is still considered scientifically accurate and is favoured in medical journals. Collins and the OED list both but prefer ‘fetus’.

My boss’s attitude was: “Who cares if people think we’ve got it wrong? They’re ignoramuses and we know we’re right!” Normally, I’d applaud that; I’m a bit of a pernickety self-satisfied elitist git. I would die in the ditch (or at least tut a little) to defend the correct meanings of ‘disinterested’, ‘fulsome’, ‘coruscating’, ‘decimate’ and suchlike, which most people seem to get wrong.

But… the aim of language is to communicate. And editors should make sure that the copy we work on does this as smoothly as possible. Just as a typo will jlot people out of their reading, so will an apparent typo (or apparent misplaced Americanism). If we treat ‘knowing we’re right even if nobody else does’ as a success, then who are we doing this for – ourselves? Pah.

I don’t usually like to compromise with the masses, nor to follow the media pack, but given that this mistake is over four centuries old and has been accepted by the Times, Guardian, Telegraph, Independent, BBC and some (unknown yet surely large) majority of people… isn’t it standard by now?

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