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April 11th, 2007

The spelling of sherbet

by Barbara Wallraff

Aron Boag, of Ferndale, Mich., writes: “A friend of mine insists that the word ‘sherbert’ is a legitimate way of spelling the word ‘sherbet’ here in the United States, ‘sherbet’ being defined as the frozen dessert normally scooped into a dish and eaten. I say it’s not legitimate, based on silly little things like Webster’s New World Dictionary, which states flat out that the ‘sherbert’ spelling is erroneous, and the entire sherbet-making industry, which uses the proper ‘sherbet’ spelling. Please tell me that we haven’t dumbed down spelling to the point where idiots who add letters and sounds to a word now get to dictate proper spelling. If this is the case, I’m going to abandon all hope.”

Dear Aron: That isn’t the way to be looking at it. The history of English is -- I’m sorry to say -- largely a tale of mistakes, misunderstandings and willfulness. I mean, how do you suppose an Arabic word that’s transliterated “sharba” or “sarba” and that refers to a fruit drink became our word “sherbet”? The citations in the Oxford English Dictionary from the 1600s, when the word first came into English, spell it variously as “Zerbet,” “Cerbet,” “Shurbet,” “Seruett,” “Sherbecke,” “Sherpet,” “Sherbette,” “Sarbet” and ,” as well as “sherbet.” So there’s quite a bit of precedent for adding letters and sounds to words.

Things changed, of course, once people had dictionaries to refer to. Although dictionaries haven’t eliminated our need to invent spellings (because new words keep being coined), they certainly have lessened it. What they can’t change is our tendency to leap to conclusions about how words should be spelled. For instance, many, many people, including some professional copy editors, suppose that “minuscule” is more closely related to “mini” than to “minus,” so they misspell the word “miniscule.” In fact, so many people have been supposing that for so many years that dictionaries now include “miniscule” as a variant spelling, indicating with varying degrees of clarity that not everyone accepts it as correct.

So it’s important to choose your dictionary wisely. (Is anyone thinking of giving somebody a dictionary as a graduation gift this spring?) “Sherbet” turns out to be near perfect as a test case, because what each of the major dictionaries says about it is typical of that dictionary.

The entry in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate for “sherbet” says it can also be spelled and pronounced “sherbert,” and makes no judgment about the relative correctness of the two. That’s probably the dictionary your friend has or would want. The American Heritage, too, says unjudgmentally that the word can also be spelled “sherbert,” but it includes a long, informative “word history” note that I doubt anyone could read without concluding that “sherbet” is the better spelling.

Webster’s New World, as you say, gives the spelling “sherbert” in order to call it erroneous as far as using it for the dessert is concerned. Webster’s New World is a good source for anyone who wants a quick thumbs-up or thumbs-down on words. And the New Oxford American (in the same family as the Oxford English Dictionary but more compact and also more reliable when it comes to current American meanings) says this in a usage note: “The tendency to insert an ‘r’ into the second syllable of ‘sherbet’ is very common. Frequency of misuse has not changed the fact that the spelling ‘sherbert’ and the pronunciation ‘sherbert’ are wrong and should not be considered acceptable variants.” This is the dictionary that would make the strongest case to your friend that he or she is wrong.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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