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WEIRD! It's a very weird word

By ERIC SHACKLE, in Sydney, Australia

Weird is a very weird word indeed:

  • It describes itself, just as stifle is an anagram of itself.
  • It's an exception to the spelling rule "I before E except after C".
  • It's onomatopoeic, where the sound suggests the meaning.
  • It's an anagram of WIRED and WIDER.

Try shouting it aloud, prolonging the sound at a high pitch: WEEEERD!

The neighbours or workmates will think you are, too.

Other onomatopoeic words are murmur, boo, buzz and SHOUT, boom, cuckoo and quick.

More than a century ago, Albert Harris Tolman wrote:

Strangely enough the word weird has come into modern English entirely from its use in Macbeth. The word occurs six times in this play as usually printed: five times in the expression "weird sisters" (I. iii. 32; I. v. 8; II. i. 20; III. iv. 133; IV. i. 136), and once in the phrase "the weird women" (III. i. 2).

Stranger still, weird does not appear at all in the only authoritative text of the tragedy, that of the First Folio. In that edition the word is weyword in the first three passages in the play, and weyard in the last three. It was Theobold, the dearest foe of Pope, who saw that Shakespeare must have written weird, and that this rare word had been changed because of "the ignorance of the copyists."

Before dictionaries existed, English words were spelt in various ways. Shakespeare even spelt his own name several different ways. "The name Shakespeare is extremely widespread," says Linda Alchin, of William Shakespeare Info, "and is spelt in an astonishing variety of ways including Shakspere, Shakespere, Shakkespere, Shaxpere, Shakstaff, Sakspere, Shagspere, Shakeshafte and even Chacsper as can be seen via details of possible ancestors."


As for the "I before E except after C" rule, Bob Cunningham lists these exceptions:

beige, cleidoic, codeine, conscience, deify, deity, deign, dreidel, eider, eight, either, feign, feint, feisty, foreign, forfeit, freight, gleization, gneiss, greige, greisen, heifer, heigh-ho, height, heinous, heir, heist, leitmotiv, neigh, neighbor, neither, peignoir, prescient, rein, science, seiche, seidel, seine, seismic, seize, sheik, society, sovereign, surfeit, teiid, veil, vein, weight, weir, weird.

Come to think of it, it's weird that the weirdest word of them all is listed last.


Story first posted January 2007

Copyright 2007

Eric Shackle

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