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Put your feet(us) up (hence the punning image, sorry) and enjoy the ramblings of the Ultra- sonographical Lexicographer as he takes you on a mystical journey through the history of Ancient Greek English, Latin English, Middle English English and Revised Modern American English English, not to mention American Australian English English, to the gestation of the debate concerning the correct spelling of the word FETUS! or was that  FOETUS?  Witness the rebirth of a great word - parents uncertain.  


Printed, though not exactly word for word with this version, in Sound Effects (Newsletter of the Australian Sonographers Association), sometime in 1997 or 1996, I can't remember...



Over the years, discerning members of the ASA have been privileged to bear witness to landmark studies on the etymology and pronunciation of English as she be used in the practise of (ultra)sonography.  For example, I told the twenty or so members back in the early days that “anomaly” and “abnormality” are essentially the same word, although current usage gives them slightly different connotations. “Anomaly” suggests something unexpected, while the mistaken Early French and Middle English inclusions of the b and the r, making it “abnormal”, more forcibly suggests malformation: as in ab (away from) + normal (normal),   rather than a (without, not) + nomaly (evenness).  The secrets of the pronunciation of “anisotropy” were also revealed - an-ISO-tropy and definitely not, despite its currency amongst people who should know better, anis-OT-ropy - as was its meaning - not equal turn.  Bet that sorted you out.

But this time it is Le Grande Fromage  of all obstetric sonography controversies, word-wise.  I cannot wax lyrical enough on the subtle and yet magnificent exegesis I am about to perform free of cost (why AM I doing this?*) for your edification and enlightenment.  Stand back in awe, for I am about to (try and) demystify the fetus v foetus debate. Yay!

Dictionary Opinion:

Most if not all dictionaries are confusing on the issue.  I checked about eight or nine hundred** dictionaries.  Some report foetus to be a variant spelling of fetus, while others consider vice versa to be nolo contendere.  I could find no agreement even among American dictionaries.  For God’s sake, my American Australian-English spell-checker prefers fetus one minute and foetus the next. (Caveat emptor of MS Word 97. Apparently, different fonts can select their own spell-checker!)  My 1948 Latin dictionary was not much help on the controversy, but only shows  fetus, as in fetus suis, meaning “sucking-pig!” [Related to char sui fan, perhaps? BBQ pork with rice, here in HK].

Historical Digression:

Words with the “oe” digraph (two letter) spelling of the “e” sound, such as oestrogen, oedema, apnoea and diarrhoea, etc. and which used to be printed (until quite recently) with a ligature – joined together like this: œ – were once Greek and stolen by the Romans (like everything else).  The Greek letters were actually “oi”,  as in osteopoikylosis [What?  Spotted bones.].

In my discussion with the gurus at the Oxford Word and Language Support – well, I read their book, Questions of English, Oxford University Press, Oxford,1994 – we decided that most words from the Greek “oi” and written in Medieval Latin as “oe” have now reverted to the “e” spelling, except for Latin or Greek names (Oedipus), or in vaguely technical terms (manoeuvre?).  There is a similar story with words using the “ae” digraph: phenomenon used to be phaenomenon.  This conversion was spurred on by the simplified/phonetic spellings recommended in Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language (1828) but there has been a traditionalist (primarily British) reluctance to accept many suggested changes, even though some are etymological more correct than the current British spelling (like using –ize endings.).  But if we really wanted to be etymologically correct we’d still be speaking Sanskrit, or pointing and grunting, right?

Did you know the word “economy” used to be “oeconomy” in Latin and “oikonomy” in Greek?  Its original meaning was “to baffle the population with fudged figures in order to make them vote for you”. 

Eureka!: Hold your breath as you read this bit... it stinks.

An excellent example of the confusion resulting from this borrowing of words from various languages is the word foetus / fetus.  It never was Greek, according to the Oxford team.  It always was Latin: fetus, a noun of the fourth (count them) declension.  The English plural is fetuses.  It is derived, according to Chambers Guide to Australian Usage. from  ferare: to conceive (although my Latin Dictionary doesn’t have this word) rather than foetere: to give birth, (which it doesn’t have either).  But the venerable Oxford people assert that the “oe” diagraph was inserted in the sixteenth century either a) as a very common printer’s error or, b) in a misguided attempt by medieval academics to “correct” the Latin language, which had they felt become corrupted over the centuries.  This judgment would have been made under the incorrect assumption that it was similar in origin to the words mentioned above, or in confusion with foetid, or fetid, which of course means “stinking” and is derived from a totally different word: foetare: to stink.  Notice the -are ending rather than the -ere ending above in 'to give birth'.  Obviously different... Something to do with declensions...

So, it is essentially snob value which has kept foetus from Early Modern English as the preferred British spelling.  The newly recommended spelling, fetus, does not represent a callous Americanism [those callous Americans!], but is the correction of a centuries old stuff-up (a.k.a. "tradition").  The spelling of similar words with digraphs has varied from century to century according to academic fashion and perceived correctness, but the fight for ye (pronounced the) olde (silent e)  British spelling is difficult to support.  Editors of most medical journals and text-books, including the Australasian Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, now recommend – in fact enforce – the fetus spelling.

I think we have to bite the bullet on this word and accept that fetus is a spelling whose time has come again. Think of it as a rebirth.  According to Chambers, “Writers at large are free to choose, and might prefer fetus either in terms of its own etymology, or because of the general principle of reducing oe digraphs to e – or for both reasons.”  

Notice of motion.  

I move that: f-e-t-u-s be the ASA approved spelling. 

Phillip L. Ramm

Fetal Welfare Lab, 

Maternal Fetal Medicine 

Westmead Hospital. [formerly]

 Seconded:   ???????

* “No-one but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” Dr S. Johnson.

** The word “hundred” was inserted by mistake. [Ed.]