Why there's a "b" in the word "doubt"

Illustration for article titled Why theres a b in the word doubt

English is widely recognized as one of the world's most difficult languages, due in no small part to its deep, highly irregular orthography. Niggling quirks in pronunciation, freaky verb conjugations, and seemingly non-sensical spelling conventions can all make English downright bewildering, even to native speakers. Take the word "doubt," for example. Most well-read (well-written?) English-speakers will tell you: the "b" is silent. But if it's silent, why is that "b" there to begin with?

The lack of what linguists call a "bilabial consonant" in the pronunciation of "doubt" is even more perplexing when you learn that, when it first entered the English lexicon in the thirteenth century, the word was actually spelled "doute" — exactly the same as the French cognate from which it stems1. But as linguistic expert Gina Cooke explains in the TedED video down below, it wasn't long before scribes began to tinker with the word's spelling, and the English "doute" quickly took on the D-O-U-B-T spelling we know today.

Why would 14C scribes re-insert a silent letter? Well, "doubt" may have origins in the French word "doute," but both share a common ancestor in the Latin verb "dubitare" — a root word that has given rise to related English terms like "dubious" and
"indubitably," each with bilabial consonant intact. But "dubitare" has also engendered words — like "double" and "dubloon" — whose connections with the word "doubt" are less obvious2. But as Cooke explains in this video, the connection is very real — and remarkably interesting, at that.


1. Strictly speaking, this may actually make the English word "doute/doubt" a loanword (borrowed from French), and not a cognate, but I digress. Any linguists care to weigh in?

2. NB: As Cooke points out, one of the words with less obvious historical and connotative connections to "doubt" is "doublet," spawned from the base word "double." What she doesn't mention is that the word "doublet," when not referring to a close-fitting jacket, is commonly used by linguists to describe one of two or more words derived from the same etymological root. (Unlike cognates, which I mention above, doublets exist within the same language.) In other words: "doubt" and "doublet" (along with dubloon, doubtless, dubious, etc.) are, in fact, doublets themselves. Was this a coincidental decision on Cooke's part, that she would choose perhaps the best set of words imaginable to explore the ramifying nature of these linguistic concepts? Maybe. But we doubt it.

[TedED via Explore]

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Then the Americans come along and needlessly start messing with the language. Possibly one of the stupidest things in history that.