What is the fete of our fayre language?

Miles Kington
Monday 31 March 1997 00:02

How many words can you think of in English which have two different spellings, both of them correct? I say this because my wife came back from the Midlands the other day and said, "I've brought a present back from Birmingham for you. It's a new combination of words I saw outside a restaurant. Look, I've written it down for you."

And she handed me a bit of paper on which was written the words "Balti Fayre".

"Nice one!" I exclaimed.

This was because she and I have been observing in an unsystematic way the evolution of the spelling of "fair" and "fare". Although they both sound exactly the same, their spelling did at least ensure that you could spot the difference on the page. "Fair" meant a festive occasion or market gathering. "Fare" meant what was on the menu. Fun fair was a fete, but fun fare was jolly things to eat.

Then people who organised school fetes got a bit mock-medieval and jovial and started putting up notices saying "Summer Fayre" or "School Fayre", which was no better or worse than calling things "ye olde" this and that. It may well be that in the old days "fair" was genuinely spelt "fayre", but it always looked a bit ye olde heritage to me, a bit touristy. Mark you, I always preferred the nice old word "fete" to the word "fair", but perhaps "fete" was getting a bit past its effective date.

Then the inevitable happened. People started spelling "fare" as "fayre" as well, and you started getting scrolly menus headed "Bill of fayre", and I am damned if "fare" was ever spelt "fayre", but after 15 years of education under the Tories the country is now full of people who think they can spell "fare" as "fayre".

And now it has got even worse, because immigrants who run Balti restaurants have fallen into the trap of the English and started spelling "fare" as "fayre". "Balti fayre", indeed! For years I thought that Balti restaurants were actually Baltic restaurants with the "c" fallen off, and although I reluctantly don't believe that any more, I still don't really believe there is such an authentic thing as Balti cooking and I don't believe there is a spelling "fayre", and I say the hell with it.

On the other hand, I also think that the revival of the spelling "fayre" is interesting because it shows that people can spell the same word in two different ways and not worry about it. This is completely contrary to what I was taught at school. I was always told at school that although in Shakespeare's day spelling was very fluid - you could spell things more or less as you wanted to then - nowadays spelling has completely solidified and there is only one right way of spelling anything. This is baloney, or maybe even boloney. I can't bring you a long list of words that can be spelt two different ways, but I can bring you a short list of them, and I can also bring you one word that can be spelt three different ways in English, all of which are correct.

I will give you till the end of the piece to think of it.

Now, some of these double spellings are quite obvious, being American variants, like "defense" for "defence" and "color" for "colour", so we will omit those. Perhaps we will also omit "pedlar" and "peddler". We can also omit names which are spelt two different ways, such as Frances and Francis or Miles and Myles and Smith and Smythe. But I can remember trainspotting at Gresford Station near Wrexham in the late 1940s (comme c'est loin, tout ca) and being mesmerised by a sign which said "Tickets must be shewn at entrance to platform". Shewn? Not shown? No, shewn, and perfectly legitimate, if the GWR authorised (or authorized) it.

I can remember that my Dad was in the army in the War in the regiment called the Royal Welch Fusiliers. Not Welsh, but Welch.

There are several older spellings which still knock around in the language, perhaps in book titles (The Compleat Angler) or in ancient titles ("Master of the Queen's Musick"). But there are modern spellings which seem to be acceptable as alternatives. I would draw to your attention, members of the jury, the fact that we have never made up our minds completely whether to spell all right as "all right" or "alright". That we can spell prison as "gaol" or "jail".

But above all that there is one word in English which we can spell three different ways.

It is Hello.

Or Hallo.

Or Hullo.

If any readers have examples which I have blindly overlooked, I would be happy to pass them on.

This has been an election-free zone.

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