Why ‘privilege’ and not ‘priviledge’?

Does any of you have a word that you constantly misspell no matter how many times you look up the correct spelling?

I have had a few of such words and one of the most memorable for me is the word ‘privilege’. The first time I became aware of my problem with that word I was in the sixth form (equivalent of high school). That word kept surfacing in my writings and I kept misspelling it every time. That was the era of red pens. My papers were always returned to me with the misspelled words underlined in red. I would take a dictionary and make the necessary corrections, but somehow I could not make the correct spelling of ‘privilege’ stick with me.
I always spelled it as *<priviledge> with a <d> in it.

All through college, I never could spell the word and didn’t understand why spelling it as *<priviledge> was wrong.  Whenever I composed something on the computer and used the word, it would be underlined and I would right-click and select the correct spelling and move on.  I had become clearly aware of the fact that I couldn’t spell that word.  I had a grammar book which contained a page on the most commonly misspelled words and, voila, ‘privilege’ was on that list.  Since then every time I come across a list of frequently misspelled words in English, ‘privilege’ is included.  The astonishing thing about the misspelling is the fact that it is always misspelled as either *<priviledge> or *<privilidge>. The question is why do we keep inserting <d> when there is no pronunciation of /d/ in the word?  The answer, it turns out, is spelling by analogy.

One day I was composing a text message and had to use the word ‘privilege’, I instantaneously pulled out my phone to check the correct spelling from a dictionary app that I had downloaded onto my phone.  That was when I decided it was time to study the  structure of the word ‘privilege’. 


I had started a literacy center that worked with students who were struggling with reading, spelling, and writing. I had become really good at getting my clients to read; however, I wasn’t having the same level of success with spelling.  In order to understand the kind of spelling errors that my clients were making and be able to help them, I realized that I needed to understand more about the English spelling system.  My research on the internet and other literacy resources led me to the term “orthography”.  Following on the tails of ‘orthography’ on the internet led me to the creators of Real Spelling resources and the Structured Word Inquiry (SWI) and an online community of real spellers who completely changed my understanding of the English spelling system.  I came to understand that English spelling makes sense and that it could be investigated in a scientific manner.

Based on this understanding that I could investigate a word, I finally decided to study the spelling of ‘privilege’.  I had an etymological dictionary so I pulled it out and looked up the word ‘privilege’. What I learned surprised me and I finally realized why there is no –d in it.  It turns out that ‘privilege’ is a Latin compound which combines the bases: prive (single) and lege (law).  In Latin it meant a law that was enacted either for the benefit or the entrapment of a single person.  As more and more laws so enacted favored individuals and conferred privileges, the word acquired the sense of (unmerited) favor when it was borrowed into English. 

I was so excited about my new discovery that I decided to tell my mentor about it.  I skyped him and as soon as I began talking, he figured out where I was going with the story.  He interrupted me and said “Now, Felicia, you wouldn’t write ‘legal’ with a <d> in it, would you?”.  That day marked the last day that I misspelled “privilege”:  the meaning and spelling connections to “legal” were made crystal clear to me.

This incidence happened several years ago, so why am I telling you about it now?  A few days ago I was reading David Crystal’s “Spell It Out: The Curious, Enthralling, and Extraordinary Story of English Spelling” and I found this statement on page 162: “Etymology lies behind many common spelling errors. Anyone who spells privilege as privilidge shows they have learned the normal rule for representing a final /ʤ/ sound in an English word; but they haven’t taken into account the etymology”.

He gave the Latin ‘privilegium’ as the source of our English word and therefore the reason for the absence of a final –dge spelling.  It turned out I was misspelling privilege based on analogy of such words as <bridge, hedge, badge, etc> and I wasn’t the only one doing that.  I had learned the rule that the final / phoneme following a single vowel letter (pronounced as short) was spelled <-dge> and I was applying that knowledge to my spelling of privilege, thus producing *<priviledge>.  I couldn’t correct my error because I didn’t understand why that <-dge> spelling didn’t apply in this case.  I needed the etymological and morphological explanations to drive home the correct spelling to me. I needed to understand why there is no <d> in it.  It turns out that a lot of people need that understanding as well: There is no <d> in legal so there is no <d> in privilege because they share the same base.

lege + al –> legal

lege + al + ly –> legally

il + lege + al –> illegal

lege +al + ize –> legalize

lege + al + ity –> legality

prive + i + lege –> privilege

These matrices are not exhaustive: you can expand them by adding different elements to them. For instance, you could expand the matrix so that you can have word sums for ‘legalized’, ‘legalizing’, ‘legalization’.

I would like to encourage you to work with these matrices. They are useful tools for reinforcing the correct spellings, but more than that they are very useful to developing vocabulary building skills. Rich vocabulary is necessary for developing good writing skills.

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