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PoTAYto, poTAHto…or is it poTAYtoe?

poTAYto, poTAHto, toMAYto, toMAHtoAnn Neithammer wrote yesterday that she had a teacher back in the 40s who told her class that the correct way to spell the official term for spud is potatoe (and, by extension, tomatoe). Finding it difficult to believe that her teacher would have made such a gaff, she asked whether potatoe had at any time been an acceptable spelling. Here is what I think.

Ooops, Ann! Your teacher must have gone to the same school as VP Dan Quayle, whose misspelling of this word in front of news cameras cost him a lot of respect if not the success of his presidential bid later on. Although the Quayle spelling has been used in the past, the last published example we have comes from 1880.

The spelling potatoe is currently on the Web 1,270,000 times (tomatoe only 497,000 times) but that is no excuse. This spelling is clearly a ‘back-derivation’ from the plural potatoes made by erroneously removing only the S. This is not a grievous error, however, since it is difficult to keep up with which words ending on O editors want us to add the suffix -s to in the plural and which, -es—pianos, dominos, pimentos and many others do not).

Back-derivation is a common enough process. That is how we got pea. Originally peas was the only form of this word. It was in a class with oats, greens, collards: it had no singular. The final S was simply coincidental but it looked suspiciously like the plural -s and, since peas was (!) made up of small, countable object, the S was removed and the remainder was used as a singular: one pea.

The process is going on very productively today in words that end (or ended) on the suffix -y which changes to -ie before the plural -s: cookies, brownies, biggies, lefties—even hobbies. This is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The singular of all these words originally ended on -y but massive back-derivation has converted a large number of them to words like cookie and brownie which are only spelled with the -ie ending now. Hobbie is just beginning to rear its ugly head.

So, while there would seem to be nothing to do to curtail the respelling of words on -y as -ie, potato and tomato are thoroughly ensconced orthographies that should survive me, thank heaven. It does leave open, however, the whole [puh-tay-to] ~ [puh-tah-to] pronunciation debate but maybe we can isolate that to the song (“Let’s Call the Whole Thing off”).

6 Responses to “PoTAYto, poTAHto…or is it poTAYtoe?”

  1. Language Lover Says:

    No, “potato” doesn’t have an “e”, but “gaffe” DOES. ;)

  2. rbeard Says:

    While the British prefer “gaffe”, US speakers, always the more pragmatic, see no need for the silent E. This shortened spelling is so widely used, even the OED now accepts it as a variant spelling. –Dr. GW

  3. Language Lover Says:

    Interesting. I’m American, and I’ve never seen the shortened spelling. Alas, I don’t have access to the OED; Webster’s doesn’t accept “gaff” but the American Heritage Dictionary does, so I retract my correction.

  4. rbeard Says:

    Actually, the E makes a nice distinction between this word and the tool, a gaff. I may begin using the two spellings to this advantage.

  5. bvw Says:

    I’m a life-long Trenton NJ area native and here we remember the true facts — not the so-cheap-to-repeat slander — in the case of Mr. Qualye’s day in a Trenton School District schoolroom.

    There is a rule in substitute teaching that a substitute is to follow the explicit instruction left by the teacher. Mr. Qualye was acting temporarily as a substitute in leading the class’s spelling bee. Well then there was no clearer instruction that could have been left to him than that the teacher did leave. She had written “POTATOE” as the *correct* spelling on the back of the card. As your own blog entry relates — the spelling of words ending in “o” oft occasions honest confusion deriving from back-formation from the irregular plurals. Such irregular plurals are not just of “o” ending words but of “y” ending words too.

    You, yourself, tossed an interesting example out: “pimento”. The plural is “pimentos”. Well, pimento is classified in botany as a member of nightshade family, just like potato, or tomato. So why “potatoes”? It is SO confusing! ;-)

    RightGrrl retold the story in 1999, a version that comports closely to what I recollect the local newspapers of the time reported.

    See http://www.rightgrrl.com/carolyn/potatoe.html

  6. Jim B Says:

    My teacher taught the same spellings with the “e” on the end of potato and tomato in the 1960’s. Is it possibly a British spelling from that period? I’ve spelled these words with an “e” for 50 years.

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