Sunday, July 19, 2009

~ australian sceptics kow-tow to USA

The sceptic movement seems to have gained a great deal of traction from the rise of the podcast. The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, probably the most popular ‘cast on the theme, is certainly my first choice among postcasts and I'm continually meeting people who concur.

The movement has its heartland in the US, that appears obvious, and in the US it is allowable, and indeed correct, to spell sceptic with a 'k'. But why has the burgeoning Australian movement embraced this spelling?

Is it like the Australian ‘Labor’ Party all over again. To quote Wikipedia, “the party was influenced by the United States labor movement and a prominent figure in the early history of the party, the North American-born King O'Malley, was successful in having the spelling "modernised"” [Other reasons are given, but they are minor.]

The Americans, through the pious hand of Noah Webster, performed a lot of English modernisation [rather in the tradition of Orwellian Newspeak]. Hence: color not colour, meter not metre, defense not defence. For good or ill, Webster’s attempt to change tongue to tung failed. Similarly, bred for bread, masheen for machine and blud for blood.

And it’s like disk all over again, though I have noticed that the original tide of US-inspired floppy 'disks' and hard 'disks' has ebbed somewhat over the years and that the correct spelling of disc can now often seen in relation to computers

The Australian Skeptics do it. The young Australian Skeptics do it. The Skeptic Zone, an Australian podcast, does it. These guys are supposed to be critical thinkers. They’re supposed to be accurate. Why are they making this mistake? Is there something I’m not seeing?

Sceptic ‘pre-dates the settlement of the US and follows the French sceptique and Latin scepticus’. Some writers, including Samuel Johnson in his dictionary, spelled sceptic with a 'k', but it never caught on, as it did with, say, ‘skeleton’. The Americans, perhaps via the intercession of Webster, used ‘skeptic’, which was closer to the ancient Greek.

To quote Wikipedia : Australians generally follow British usage (with the notable exception of the Australian Skeptics).

I would really like an answer to this question. I'd hate to think that our sceptic movement is working out of ignorance.

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Gold said...


I started the Christchurch Skeptics in the Pub meetup here in NZ. Like Australia we tend towards the English spelling.

When I started this group the topic of the spelling of it did come up but I went with the K for a couple of reasons that seemed to be accepted at the time.

First, the word sceptic seems to be interchangable with cynic these days. It has a rather negative feel to it. People see a sceptical person as closed minded and unwilling to believe anything. This is pretty much the opposite of what I know about the people in the Skeptical Movement. Those I meet personally and those I "meet" each week on podcasts from the US and Australia are some of the most positive, open minded and passionate people I know.

The other reason is that the most popular and far reaching voice in this area is from the US and for better or worse their odd spelling has become more a name than a label.

This is, of course, just my thoughts on the matter.


Nick Sharratt said...

I'm not Austrailian (British) so not really my place to comment, but i will anyhow.

I usually prefer the non-Americanized spellings for words, but with some exceptions, and skeptic is one.

The reason is that when I see sceptic I read it as pronounced like septic, and hence it has a negative emotional response.

Some words I adopt American spelling for as they can provide a useful distinction in use. Eg I differentiate program (for a computer) and programme (as in TV or events) as a useful discriminator - so I can talk about programme about a program, or a program for a programme and be clear which use is which.

I'm quite aware that these uses and reasons are not formalised, but I'm also awre than language defined by rules is dead and that any living language will always be evolving and "rules" for spelling/ grammar can only ever be guidlines, and not worth getting upset about if they change in ways one doesn't like. :-)

Sam Sejavka said...

Fantastic comments – [and very diplomatic too].

I guess I should admit that I'm hyper-sensitive to American cultural infiltration. I love and indeed am fascinated by the way language evolves, but when new forms are mindlessly adopted via the media of Hollywood films and trash TV I feel it’s a different story – a big, powerful, coarse, blustering cultural entity steamrolling our own traditions. And our own undiscriminating public simply swallowing what they are fed. I worry that it will lead to monoculture.

It’s just that I would have liked our own Antipodean sceptic movement - in a time when scepticism seems to be coming into its own - to celebrate the difference, however minor, in our cultures, rather than just tagging along. And also, of course, I’m being a grumpy old man.

As regards the 'septic' thing - in French it actually is pronounced ‘septic’ – I’ve never noticed the similarity until now. (And now I can’t stop noticing it.) And I’m not sure if switching the ‘c’ to a ‘k’ will remove the association between scepticism and cynicism – that’s something which the work of open-minded, free-thinking sceptics the world over will have to achieve. Similarly with the word ‘atheist’. Coming from a very religious background, it is still hard for me to declare myself an atheist in polite company - as in my youth it was more or less synonymous with ‘satanist’.

Lately, ‘atheist’ seems to be becoming more acceptable … But not so acceptable that when suggesting alternatives to RE to my daughter’s primary school principal, I don’t use euphemisms like ‘humanist’ or ‘rationalist’.

Using a ‘c’ does make it look more like cynic, but it’s a very subtle point to be arguing.

I also sometimes bow to US spelling. I did actually accept that ‘disk’ could be used in relation to computers, after discussing it with some academic friends. But as I mentioned in my post, I’m seeing ‘disc’ used more and more in this context.

And 'program'. I learnt the other day (from my psychologist, no less) that 'program' is correct all the way down the line. In Britain, 'program' only became 'programme' in the 19th Century. It was borrowed from the French by haughty writers who preferred an affected Gallic style, and was then adopted by the aspiring masses – but not by the Americans. Officially speaking, you’re right, Nick – program for computers, programme elsewhere. The OED says program is preferable because 'it conforms to the usual English representation of Greek gramma, in anagram, diagram, cryptogram, telegram etc.'

Thanks for the great comments.

Anonymous said...

There are two main reasons for the US spelling used by Australian Skeptics (and also by UK Skeptics, for what it's worth): One is the affiliation with the Skeptical movement in the US, which was (and some would argue still is) the dominant force in the skeptical community. The other is to distinguish the skeptical movement from just plain old scepticism, such as that shown by people who don't believe humans walked on the moon.

So no, it's not due to ignorance.

I personally don't think the spelling has anything to do with why people confuse scepticism with cynicism, but I could be wrong. In any case, the US spelling has become dominant enough (see UK and NZ usage) that I think it would be overly pedantic to insist that it's wrong.

Eran Segev
President - Australian Skeptics

Sam Sejavka said...

Hi Eran,

I seem to have ruffled a few feathers, but it's good to get such prompt, articulate responses.

That said, I think I'll always be a stick in the mud when it comes to the shifting of usage away from the British/Australian towards the American. I think the Labor party made a bad decision in their choice of spelling. I'm yet to be convinced with regards to The Australian Skeptics etc.

And the British too, you say? In the very heartland!

The discrimination between your everyday doubting thomas-type 'sceptic' and the modern critical thinking 'skeptic' may be an example of language in evolution, but, if so, it's yet to be picked up on by the Macquarie Dictionary.

By the way, keep up the good work. It's exciting watching the movement grow.

But couldn't we put our own stamp on it by using a 'c'?

Anonymous said...

hiya sam, long time no hear/speak....thanks for leaving a message on my blog id thingy....
peace and love to you too as well....
hear sk's doing a benefit for you soon....hope all's ok

peace and love (yet again...)

Anonymous said...

No feathers ruffled at all - just thought your post was worth a response.

BTW, I found this post through a Google alert. I also have an alert on "Australian Sceptics" which almost always brings up climate change sceptics... I think that kind of tells you why it's good to have a distinction.

With regard to putting our own stamp on it, I have two things to say: I don't see the spelling as important in putting our stamp on anything, and I consider our being part of a global movement a very important and valuable part of what we are. I have just returned from The Amazing Meeting and think the globalisation of skepticism shown there is encouraging.

All the best,

F.G. Marshall-Stacks said...

Latin Scepticus,
disciple of Pyrrho of Elis, from

Greek Skeptikos, from
skeptesthai, to examine; see spek- in Indo-European roots.

you say tamardo,
I say tomata,
Let's call the whole thing a pyrrhic victory.

eek said...

"~ australian sceptics kow-tow to USA"

Well of course you do -- we're better!

Just kidding! Maybe. ;-)

Sam Sejavka said...


It must have been a great experience attending the Amazing Meeting. I've been hearing all about it in the pod-verse.

Perhaps, as Marshall-Stacks implies, we should agree to disagree on the spelling, as I have major, intractable (and perhaps to some extent irrational)concerns about any shift to American usage - largely because, as I've said, it usually comes about osmotically via trash media. If there are good reasons to change - and you have posited some - then I'm prepared to grit my teeth and bear it.

Meanwhile, I'll keep spreading the good word. My local pharmacy, unfortunately, still refuses to remove its ear candles from sale despite my admonitions, and there's still no humanist alternative to RE at the local primary school. I wonder if Mt Waverley is ready for a sceptical group?



Sam Sejavka said...

Hi, Hellbound - hope all is well. This being the internet, I've no idea where you lay your hat or whatever ... But if it's in Melbourne, make sure you come to our Show.

SK and a heap of other musos are basically helping me extract myself from some legal difficulties - angels that they are.