Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Getting Acclimated to "Acclamation"

Yesterday's Visual Thesaurus Word of the Day was acclamation, a timely word now that the Democratic National Convention has begun. Of course, the news out of Denver is that Barack Obama will not be nominated by acclamation ("a voting method in which shouts or applause, rather than ballots, determine the winner"). Instead, there will be a state-by-state roll call for the nomination on Wednesday night, with some votes going to Obama's erstwhile rival Hillary Clinton, followed by some sort of a unanimous consent for Obama after the first ballot. Columnists Dick Morris and Eileen McGann wrote last week that Obama should have "blocked a roll call by allowing a voice vote to nominate by acclimation." Whoops!

Morris and McGann aren't the only ones to make an accidental replacement of acclamation with its soundalike acclimation. The same error found its way into recent campaign articles from WiredPRNews and The Dallas Morning News. And of course it appears in countless unedited posts across the blogosphere, where enthusiasm frequently trumps proper spelling. Maybe it's a kind of Freudian slip, with the idea being that the Democratic delegates still need to get acclimated to Obama in order to nominate him!

Politics aside, acclamation and acclimation are two frequently confused words for obvious reasons. They differ by one letter, and that letter represents an unstressed vowel sound known as the "schwa," the spelling of which is often difficult to predict. As the Wikipedia article on "schwa" points out, the sound can be represented by any of the six letters used typically used in English for vowels:

  • like the <a> in about
  • like the <e> in taken
  • like the <i> in pencil
  • like the <o> in eloquent
  • like the <u> in supply
  • like the <y> in sibyl

Some speakers might pronounce the i in acclimation with the "short i" sound of big if they're saying the word very slowly and carefully, but in normal speech that vowel will sound pretty close to a schwa. Delving a bit into the linguistic nitty-gritty, in an unstressed syllable the big vowel is often reduced to what phoneticians call a "barred-i", which is a "high" vowel. That means your tongue is a bit closer to the roof of your mouth than when you're pronouncing a "central" schwa. But not all English speakers distinguish between the barred-i and the schwa. Here's a test to see if you have the distinction: do the words roses and Rosa's sound different? (See this page for more phonetic details.)

No doubt about it, the schwa can be downright tricky. Just look at how the spelling of the first vowel changed in the words discussed in this Word Routes column: skedaddle, scadoodle, skidoo. With so much variability, it's no wonder that acclamation and acclimation can get mixed up occasionally — especially when a spellchecker is no help in ferreting out the "wrong" spelling.

In our next Word Routes we'll look at some more commonly confused words. Look for it immanently, uh, imminently.


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Ben Zimmer is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday August 26th 2008, 6:18 PM
Comment by: Glenn S. (Lannon, WI)
Spelling correctly without lapse can be a challenging task even for the critics of poor spelling: "...can get mixed up occasionallly [sic] — especially when a spellchecker is no help..." - even when a spell checker would have helped!

Sometimes we simply need to laugh at ourselves and move on.
Tuesday August 26th 2008, 6:38 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Thanks, Anonymous! Error corrected. Looks like I'm a victim of Muphry's Law...

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Words beginning with /sk-/ can sound a bit skittish.
Obama got in hot water for using "sweetie" on the campaign trail.
"Presumptive" and "presumptuous" are prone to confusion.