The Silent and Not-So-Silent L

Hi! Happy Friday!

I want to use today’s Weekender to share a story that I would have shared in a normal newsletter had I, well, not kind of already shared it. It’s about the word “salmon,” why it has a silent L, and why “falcon” has a not-silent one. It’s the same story, plus a bit of historical accident.

The word “salmon” comes from a 13th-century word “samoun,” which, you’ll note, doesn’t have the letter “L” in it. The word “falcon” also comes from a 13th-century word, “faucon,” which, you’ll similarly note doesn’t have an “L.” But if you click through both of those links, you’ll note that those 13th-century words are themselves derived from Latin words, “salmo” and “falcon,” respectively, which both have “L”s. That’s not so strange, in and of itself — it’s common for spellings to change over time, losing letters. But it is definitely weird for letters — particularly silent ones, in the case of the fish — to come back. What happened?

The explanation, as it turns out, is exactly the same story as why “debt,” “subtle,” and “doubt” have a silent B — and I wrote about that in January of 2016. Here’s what I said then:

The English scholars of the 1500s [ . . . ] wanted to align the spelling of words with their etymological roots. As “doute” came from “dubious,” it needed a “b.” And it didn’t really matter much if the spelling and pronunciation didn’t match, especially because not everyone could read and write anyway. So they tossed a silent “b” into the word, coupling it with the “t.” “Doute,” therefore, became “doubt” (and let’s not deal with where that silent “e” went).

And, similarly, “saumon” became “salmon” and “faucon” became “falcon” (and let’s not deal with where the “u” went). The pronunciation of the two words has deviated over the centuries, and I’m not sure why that’s the case, but I think it’s something that happened organically. While most people do not say “sal-mon” when talking about the fish, there are definitely a lot of people (especially those for whom English is not their native tongue) who pronounce the “L.” For “falcon,” well, try saying it without the “L” to yourself — it sounds a lot like a word you can’t often say in polite company. So maybe that’s why we pronounce that “L.”

Again, that’s speculation, but it works for me. So I’ll go with it for now; if you have a better, concrete explanation, let me know.

The Now I Know Week In Review

Monday: I took the day off for Presidents’ Day. A fun note about that holiday: Grammar experts can’t agree on whether it needs an apostrophe.

Tuesday: The Ghost That Was Too Quiet: It’s a car, not an actual ghost, don’t worry.

Wednesday: The WWII Plan To Bury Spies Alive: Welcome to the Rock (of Gibraltar, not Gander, if you get the reference).

Thursday: Where “Cold, Hard Cash” is Very Literal: Welcome to the rocks (as money).

And some other things you should check out:

Some long reads for the weekend:

  1. I’m a Digital Nomad. It’s Not as Fun As It Looks.” (Vice, 7 minutes, January 2024). Here’s how the piece starts: “Picture this. It’s Tuesday morning and you’re reclined on a sun lounger, Ray Bans on, casting your gaze across a golden beach in Bali. Your laptop is open in front of you, the WIFI is strong and your office is now essentially a rainbow-coloured parasol.This isn’t a vacation, it’s the supposed life of a digital nomad: freelance remote workers who chose to be location-independent, and continue their 9-5 routine while funding adventures around the world.” I’m a homebody, so this doesn’t sound like a lot of fun to me — well, Bali sounds great, but getting there etc., not so much — and I’m only a tad surprised that this isn’t a fantastic lifestyle.
  2. The Great Freight-Train Heists of the 21st Century” (New York Times, 38 minutes, January 2024). During the golden age of the American railroad, train robberies were unfortunately all too common. But as travel and commerce shifted to other means, and as security got better, the number of such crimes diminished. Now, with e-commerce booming, train heists are making a comeback. (Note: I used a gift link — you should be able to read this even if you don’t have a Times subscription.)
  3. How to Name a Baby” (Wait But Why, December 2013). The date here isn’t a typo — this is about a decade old. Some of the data shared, therefore, is out of date. But the research and the findings are still fun and surprising. There are lots of graphs and you’ll probably love them; my favorite was the “Paige” one because I generally don’t think of the U.S. having a north-south line that extends coast-to-coast.

Have a great weekend!