Fax, lax, max, pax, sax, tax, wax. Furthermore, box, cox, fox, lox, Knox, pox. Additionally, hex, mix, nix, tex, tux. Therefore, ax.
Okay, the slightly less abridged version.
How should we spell ax/axe? The American way (ax) or British (axe) way?
The Bases of Spelling
People often think that spelling is just based on deep principles of phonemicity. However, it is actually (at least in the case of English) based on a combination of phonemicity, etymology, and, significantly, analogy.
On phonemic grounds: ax makes more sense than axe. After all, the word rhymes with tax, not aches.
On etymological grounds: ax makes more sense than axe. After all, the Old English form was æx, and the word has never ended in a “e” sound — or that of any other vowel for that matter.
On analogical grounds: ax makes more sense than axe. You can clearly see this from the list of words I began this article with.
Indeed, axe didn’t even really get popular until the nineteenth century, and then not in America. So it doesn’t even have vintage calibre. In fact, axe is such a mental spelling, that even the Oxford English Dictionary condemns it.
The spelling ax is better on every ground, of etymology, phonology, and analogy, than axe
The Curious Case of the Three Letter Rule
The only reason to keep that e in axe is in order to maintain the curious “three letter” rule, which is in fact more of a tendency than a hard-and-fast rule. This “rules” refers to a word requiring a minimum of three letters unless it is a grammatical word. That is why we write “add” instead of “ad” (compare: bad, not *badd), bye but by, too not to, and so on. The first items of each pair, unlike the second, are non-function words.
However, the <e> is still superfluous if we wish to follow the three letter rule! For the purposes of spelling, “x” is counted as if it were two letters, not one. That’s right. For example, we write taxed, not taxxed, whereas we do write mapped from map; there is no need to double the letter <x> in order to maintain the “short” vowel pronunciation when an affix is added, because <x> functions as if it were two letters. Basically, <x> is what we could call a “compound letter”.
Additionally, as mentioned, this famed Three Letter Rule is more of a tendency. There are many cases where it doesn’t hold. For example, ox. Despite the plural even being oxen(!), we neglect to put the final <e> in the singular.
Therefore, as much as it breaks my patriotic heart, axe needs to be binned in favour of ax.
But don’t for one second, dear Americans, sit back smugly and assume that your spellings are superior. Very often, they aren’t. More on that in a later post.
“axe | ax, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2016. Web. 20 December 2016.
© 2015-2020 Bryan A. J. Parry