From paediatricians to pedants: why are some words spelled paed- and others ped-?
Why do some words begin with paed– in British English, but start with ped– in American English? Like many transatlantic spelling differences, this came about because British English has a tendency to preserve the spelling of words it has borrowed from other languages (such as French or Latin), whereas American English prefers to simplify, adapting the spelling to reflect the way words actually sound in English. This is why we take our children to a paediatrician in the UK, but a pediatrician in the US.
These words use the combining form paedo- or pedo-, which forms nouns relating to children. Hence, a paediatrician/pediatrician is a doctor specializing in children’s medicine. Paedo- comes from the Greek pais, paid-, meaning ‘child or boy’. Because of the classical root, British English maintains the –ae– whilst it is simplified to just -e- in the US.
In fact, both pedagogue and pedant ultimately derive from the Greek word paidion, meaning ‘boy, lad’, which is also the source of the combining form paedo– and pedo– seen in paediatrician/pediatrician. However, they did not enter English direct from Greek, which helps to explain why they do not have a paed– spelling in British English.
Pedagogue – meaning a teacher, particularly a strict one – is partly a borrowing from the French pedagogue, pedagoge meaning ‘schoolmaster’, and partly from the Latin paedagogus ‘teacher, schoolmaster, slave’. Both the French and the Latin words derive from the Greek paidagōgos, formed from paid- ‘child’ and agōgos ‘leading’. In Ancient Greece, the word denoted a slave who took a child to school, but in time it came to mean a teacher in Latin. The fact that it entered English via French (with the spelling pedagogue), meant the ped- spelling was adopted in British English from the start.
Pedant came into English in the late 16th century. At first, it was used interchangeably with pedagogue, to mean a teacher, schoolmaster, or tutor. Very quickly, however, another sense emerged, to describe a person who is excessively concerned with minor details and rules or with displaying academic learning. It is this sense which is still used today, whereas the ‘teacher’ sense has become obsolete. Pedant derives from both the French pédant and the Italian pedante, which were used to mean both ‘teacher’ and ‘person obsessed with minor details’ in their original languages. Though the origin of the French and Italian words is uncertain, it is likely that they come from the Latin paedogogus, which in turn came from the Greek root paidagōgos. As with pedagogue, British English took the ped- spelling from the French and Italian source words, rather than the Greek root.