Not all words have had a single spelling across all eras and contexts. For example, the past participle of the English word "cleave" can be written as "cleft", "cleaved", or "cloven". Rare misspellings do not count; I am interested in intentional spellings. In some cases the spelling variations extend through all inflection, sometimes they are restricted to few individual forms. Either kind is fine.

Which Latin word has the most spelling variants? The spellings can be from different eras.

The main reasons for spelling variations (that I can think of) are hypercorrection (e.g. c > ch) and changes in pronunciation (e.g. -os > -us or ae > e). But it is not obvious which word has the most attested variants just by looking at the general possible patterns.


The best word I know in this sense is lacrima with six variants. I have seen these spellings in dictionaries and elsewhere:

  • lacrima
  • lacruma
  • lachryma
  • lacryma
  • dacrima
  • dacruma

These variations are due to the sound change d > l and the typical hypercorrections c > ch and i > y.

  • 1
    @sumelic By "regular" I meant "not restricted to this specific instance", but in retrospect it was a bad choice of words. I removed "regular". There are indeed many instances of d still in Latin. Actually, studying the d~l variation would make a nice new question.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Jun 21 '18 at 7:46
  • Yes, I just had the same thought. I will try to find out if the idea that /l/ here came from *dl- is supported by other sources.
    – Asteroides
    Jun 21 '18 at 7:48
  • @Asteroides I don't think the *dl > l change is a generally accepted theory.
    – Alex B.
    Jul 30 '20 at 15:40

Not sure that all those variants "count", but to my understating there are six of them to the word clipeus:

  • clipeus
  • clypeus
  • clipeum
  • clypeum
  • clupeus
  • clupeum

Those different variations had raised several speculations in the ancient's minds with respect to the meaning and/or etymology of those different terms - even to extant of self-contraction (see below on Plinius). I happened to read about it in very a interesting entry in Popma's De Differentiis Verborum (though I think this entry was inserted later by the editior):

Clypeus significat militare scutum. Clypeum est expressa corporis effigies humerorum tenus ex auro, argento, lapide, ecc. sicut imago e cera, ita dictum, quod sit rotundum (1) instar militaris clypei. (Trebellius Pollio in Claudio, III):"Illi clypeus aureus, vel ut grammatici loquuntur, clypeum aureum, senatus totius iudicio, in romana curia collocatum est.". Sed poëtae et historici indistincto genere utuntur in utraque significatione, ut de effigie dixit (Svet. Calig. XVI):"Inter reliquos honores decretus est ei clypeus aureus, quem quotannis certo die collegia sacerdotum in Capitolium ferrent." (Id. Domit. XXVIII): "Scalas etiam inferri, ut clypeos et imagines eius coram detrahi, et ibidem solo adfligi iuberet." (Liv. XL. 51): "Clypeaque de columnis et signa militaria affixa demsit." De scuto (Virg. Aen. II. 734): "Ardentes clypeos atque aera micantia cerno." (Id. IX. 709): "Dat tellus gemitum, et clypeum (2) superintonat ingens." Quare Plinius in secundo librorum, quos dubii sermonis inscripsit, haec non tam genere, quam scriptura et etymologia differre censuit, esseque clypeum (3) a clepere, quia corpus celet; clupeum vero imaginem a cluendo, quod posterius etymon rursus valde improbavit (studio veritatis, aut memoriae lapsu, a se ipso dissentiens) (HN. XXXV. 4): "Scutis enim, inquit, qualibus apud Troiam pugnatum est, continebantur imagines. Unde et nomen habuere clupeorum non, ut perversa grammaticorum subtilitas voluit, a cluendo." Alii dicunt, clupeum ἀσπίδα, clypeum ornamentum dici.

(1) Sic ob rotunditatem quoque antiqui clypeum corium bovis appellarunt, in quo foedus Gabiorum cum Romanis fuerat descriptum. Vid. (Sext. Pompeii Celsi lib. III. de Verb Vet. signif.)
(2) Vocabulum hocce in genere neutro h. l. esse positum, testatur Erythraeus in (Ind. Virgil. fol. 41. fac. 2. col b.)
(3) Clypeus non dicitur παρὰ τὸ κλέπτειν, (quod raro in bonam partem accipitur) h. e. a celando, vel abscondendo, sed potius παρὰ τὸ γλύφειν, h. e. a sculpendo, quod in eo imago et facies cuiusque redderetur. Conf. (Perotti Cornucop. Epigr. XXIII. col. 763. lin. 15, seqq.)

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