Encyclopædia. Æon. Anæsthesia. What do these words have in common? They refer back to a letter we don’t really use anymore.
Today, on the anniversary of Encyclopaedia Britannica’s first publication in 1768, we’re taking a look at where that squished-up “ae”—visible in older editions of this and many other encyclopedias—comes from.
Æ is technically called an “ash,” and it makes a noise like the “a” in “fast.” It’s what linguist-types call a ligature, or two letters joined together. Take a look at the ash in action in this first passage of the Old English epic Beowulf.
The ash originally appeared in Old English texts written using an adapted Latin alphabet. Eventually, the ash began to be associated with Latin itself, even though it was never used in the original Roman alphabet.
Old English (that is, English as it was spoken between 400 and about 1100 AD) was written using an adapted Latin alphabet introduced by Christian missionaries, write Jonathan Slocum and Winfred P. Lehmann of the University of Texas at Austin. But because the alphabet wasn’t standardized to the new language it was trying to describe, words were written phonetically and spelling was not standardized. Scribes added a few letters to capture sounds, including æ. It was called “ash” after the Anglo-Saxon rune, writes M. Asher Cantrell for Mental Floss.
Words that used æ included: æfter (it means “after”); ǣfre (ever); and āhwæþer (either). They’re not that different from their modern counterparts: more than 80 percent of the thousand most common words in today’s English come from Old English.
But encyclopedia isn’t an Old English word, however it’s spelled. In fact, although “encyclopædia” sounds like an old word, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it has its origins in the sixteenth century, not ancient Rome. When the first encyclopedias were written, Europe was taking a fresh interest in the classical world and classical thinking, and therefore a fresh interest in Latin.
The “ae” spelling of encyclopedia would have become obsolete earlier, writes the OED in a longer, paywalled entry, but it stayed alive because many of the works that used the word (notably, Encyclopaedia Britannica) wanted that authoritative, Latin-ey look.
The ash has more or less vanished from American spellings. In some words the æ has become uncoupled, like in “archaeology.” In others, the American English spelling drops the e, like in “encyclopedia.” But the “ae” spelling that parallels the medieval letter is alive and well in England. Take a look at this 2015 article from The Telegraph about a man who just needs to correct Wikipedia, the “online encyclopaedia.”