L&S: caenum (less correctly coenum)
L&S: cena (not coena, caena)

It seems “coenum” and “coena” both are medieval spellings which were straight borrowed from Greek. So both of them should be completely incorrect, right?


L&S: contio (less correctly concĭo)

Isn’t “concio” just a medieval misspelling? How could it be less correct?


L&S: fetus (foet-)
Lewis Elementary Latin Dictionary: fetus (not foet-)

These two entries are contradictory to each other. What does it actually mean?

Please help me, I’m really confused.


The main role of a dictionary is to provide information. For words like caenum, there are two different pieces of information that may be useful:

  1. Spellings like coenum are commonly found

  2. Certain individuals consider spellings like coenum to be "incorrect", for various reasons (convention, etymology, and analogy are common criteria for the "correctness" of spelling). As Expedito Bipes says, there is no simple definition of "misspelling".

Giving a common "mis"spelling along with a clarifying comment such as "less correctly" is I think intended to be a way of communicating both pieces of information. If the "mis"spelling was not listed by the dictionary, then the reader might wonder if "coenum" was a distinct word that just didn't happen to be in the dictionary, or if it was a "valid" variant spelling of caenum that had been accidentally omitted. If the spelling was listed in the dictionary without comment, then the reader might mistakenly assume that it was a "valid" alternative spelling.

That said, the brief and formulaic nature of this comment seems to leave its meaning a bit unclear. I haven't been able to identify the precise criteria used in L&S for determining when to use "less correctly" or "not" when discussing spellings.

My guess is that the specific phrase "less correctly" was just chosen as a kind of hedge because some people might consider some non-etymological spellings to be acceptable (due to established custom) or at least not entirely erroneous. Calling a spelling "completely incorrect" or "just a medieval misspelling" might be incorrectly understood as implying that it never had any common currency in Latin texts written by educated individuals, or that it only occurred accidentally or sporadically. In fact, it seems that many of the spellings that are described as "less correct" in L&S were in frequent use, possibly even up until the time that dictionary was being edited.

I have found an interesting review of "Harper's Latin Dictionary" in The Nation No. 762 (Feb. 5, 1880) that supports Expedito Bipes's statement that in the 19th century, the standardization of Latin spelling and codification of what was considered "correct" and "incorrect" was still in progress (but evidently, some individuals such as the author of the following quote were very interested in speeding up this process):

The features of the old dictionary [Andrews's Lexicon] which called most urgently for reform were the orthography and the etymologies. [...] The spelling of the new work leaves not very much to be desired, and it is a real comfort to see at last in a dictionary caelum, paenitet, cena, erus, umerus, umidus, nuntius, contio, condicio, incoho, and many others. This is not a minor point. It has at last dawned on the scholastic mind that there is a right way of writing (and pronouncing) every Latin word; and it becomes an important duty to free the language from the distortions brought about by a vicious mediæval pronunciation, and to accustom learners from the outset to the right forms of words. Often bad forms should have been rejected more positively: thus "contio (less correctly concio)." Why not "incorrectly"? On what principle the editors have given abicio, conicio, proicio, etc., at the heads of articles, and on the other hand "adjicio (better adicio)," we are at a loss to say.

  • Thank you very much!I mistakenly thought the classical manuscripts were the criterions of the correctness,and “less correctly” meant the scholars were not sure if the spelling was a classical spelling.But why didn’t they write it as “cena(less correctly coena,caena)”? – nye Nov 16 '18 at 3:13
  • 1
    @nye: Oh, that comment makes the question clearer to me! I'm actually not sure whether "less correctly" means anything specific about the time period when the variant is found. I will try to look up more information on this – sumelic Nov 16 '18 at 3:24

This subject is addressed in Allen and Greenough's Latin Grammar:

  1. Latin spelling varied somewhat with the changes in the language and was never absolutely settled in all details.

Thus, we find lubet, vortō, as earlier, and libet, vertō, as later forms. Other variations are optumus and optimus, gerundus and gerendus.

Accordingly, to say that something is less correct means that the usage is less common than what was more generally accepted.

Languages change over time and variations of usage are found among different communities and dialects. Because of this, it's difficult to address the question of spelling being more or less correct, since doing so assumes that there exists some accepted standard by which correctness may be judged. However, according to Andrew Sihler, no such standard could be said to exist until the twentieth century:

There was no standardized written language until the promulgation of a national orthography, based upon Latin characters, in 1909. (New Comparative Grammar of Greek and Latin p. 4)

L. R. Palmer argues that there is no scientific way to decide what should be considered standard usage:

Scholars are undecided whether they are to be regarded as different dialects of one and the same language, ‘Italic’, or as two separate languages. This is largely a dispute about terms which have no precise scientific definition. A language is a system of vocal signals used by a given community of human beings. Any person who makes intelligible use of that system becomes ipso facto, at least for such time as he makes use of it, a member of that linguistic community. This factor of intelligibility may be used to attempt a rough definition of dialect. Within the given system local and personal varieties may occur, but as long as intelligibility is not seriously affected such variation is not felt to involve exclusion from membership of the linguistic community. These local and individual forms of speech are regarded merely as subvarieties of the system used over the whole area. (The Latin Language p.6)

  • 1
    Unfortunately this doesn't answer the question. All the examples you give are of archaic forms and are indicated accordingly (or just with parentheses as a variant) in L&S. See this question for an example of a "less correct" form. – brianpck Nov 15 '18 at 17:57
  • 1
    @brianpck. I honestly don't know what he's asking then, nor do I know what you're talking about concerning archaic forms. He's showing variations without any real contradictions, so what is it that he's not understanding? – Expedito Bipes Nov 15 '18 at 18:27
  • Archaic spellings (e.g. optimus/optumus) aren't "less correct": they're just older and, hence, less common. The OP's examples (e.g. caenum/coenum) usually are a result of some spelling mistake, especially in the medieval period where e/ae/oe are all pronounced roughly the same. – brianpck Nov 15 '18 at 18:31
  • 1
    @brianpck. OK. I expanded my answer to address your objections. Maybe I'm wrong, but your assertion that archaic spellings aren't "less correct" seems questionable to me. If anything can be considered correct or not, I don't see why archaic spellings should be included as correct. Many archaic spellings are certainly rejected from acceptable English nowadays. – Expedito Bipes Nov 15 '18 at 19:44

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.