Why does everyone spell Michael wrong (ie. put the e and the a the wrong way round)?
May 21, 2007 4:49 PM   Subscribe

LanguageFilter: Why does everyone spell Michael wrong (ie. put the e and the a the wrong way round)?

We recently got a wedding invitation and discovered yet again that someone had decided that the way to spell my first name was 'micheal'. I got frustrated and told my wife 'nobody spells it that way'. A quick google search shows that occasionally it is spelled that way, but even google says "Did you mean to say: michael" and a search on wikipedia actually just redirects you to 'michael'.

So, my question to all you linguistic MeFi's is, why is this common name spelt incorrectly so often? Am I just deluded and the 'micheal' spelling is more common than I think, or do people just not know how to spell? I've never seen this kind of thing with other names, but I get it all the time with my name and it's driving me nuts!

Insights?
posted by ranglin to Writing & Language (71 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
I am just hazarding a guess here, but I bet it's because the diphthong "ea" is a lot more common than "ae" in English, and it's force of habit.
posted by mckenney at 4:52 PM on May 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


I think mckenney's right...it's just more natural to write "ea" than "ae." My husband's name is Michael, and when we were first dating I had to consciously spell it out.
posted by christinetheslp at 4:55 PM on May 21, 2007


and it's not a diphthong, I'm an idiot, I just mean vowel combinations.
posted by mckenney at 4:56 PM on May 21, 2007


"ae" is a pretty low-frequency bigram, compared with "ea"; the stark contrast is probably enough to kick in for "Micheal" if you haven't learned the proper spelling dead-rote.
posted by cortex at 4:58 PM on May 21, 2007


The interesting thing is that you wouldn't normally misspell a word pronounced that way as "Micheal" since it's not an eee sound. But because people "know" there's an 'a' in there, they include it.
posted by smackfu at 5:00 PM on May 21, 2007


A lot of people don't know how to spell anything correctly, much less the word Michael. It's not just your name.
posted by number9dream at 5:02 PM on May 21, 2007 [5 favorites]


I agree with mckenney. Checking google, which is a bad but easy method, there are 265 million hits for "ea", as against 152 million for "ae". Searching pages in English only, it's 62 million pages for "ea", 38.5 million pages for "ae".

Generally, English spellers have a lot of trouble with all of the two-vowel combinations, though. "Weird" is often misspelled, for example. My guess is that because English doesn't follow any single rule for vowel order when there are two vowels (by contrast with German, for example), people are sort of adrift when it comes to the vowel order. Either way looks a bit weird, and there's no reliable way to figure out the vowel order from the sound of the word.

People don't often misspell Michael with just a single vowel in the second vowel spot, though - right? (eg you don't see "Michel" a lot) So they know there are two, and they know which ones, they just can't remember which order they go in.
posted by LobsterMitten at 5:05 PM on May 21, 2007


Having been given the name myself, along with a commonly misspelled last name, I feel your pain. However, I don't think that "most people" misspell it — it just seems that way from confirmation bias.

Still, you're right; it is a fairly common misspelling. I think it's mainly because the vowel combination "ae" is fairly uncommon in English, and when it's used (aegis, Aesop, etc.) it's almost always pronounced as a long 'a'. Also, English is fairly unique in the fact that Michael (or its equivalent) is pronounced non-phonetically; cf. Michel, Miguel, or Михаил (Mikhail).

There are only a few other non-phonetic names "Phoebe" and "Deirdre" spring to mind; it'd be interesting if anyone with those names could chime in and let us know how often they run into misspellings.
posted by Johnny Assay at 5:06 PM on May 21, 2007


number9dream: "A lot of people don't know how to spell anything correctly, much less the word Michael. It's not just your name."

100% agreed.

People who have trouble with this, I suspect, are the same people who write "calender" and "woah" and a bunch of other too-common misspellings.
posted by loiseau at 5:06 PM on May 21, 2007


As a Mike or Michael I always say "ael" when I spell it, but that's partially because I have a 5 letter last name that has a thousand different possible spellings.

I think the eals were just raised in a different culture or are trying to break apart from the rest of the Michaels to form their own colony (or to be more individualistic).
posted by drezdn at 5:06 PM on May 21, 2007


My name also has an "ae" in it, but because Gail, Gayle and Gale are more common than Gael, everyone spells it wrong, too. Take heart in the fact that I'm sure yours is spelled right 1000 times more than mine is. They also spell Cooper as Copper or sometimes ask if it's with a "K." Bad spellers don't think in words, and no matter how many times they've seen your name (on emails from you, or whatever), it never sticks in their heads.
posted by GaelFC at 5:09 PM on May 21, 2007


Ditto number9dream. People are just plain stupid. (They can't spell "Rachael" either.)
posted by turducken at 5:09 PM on May 21, 2007


It's a weird-ass vowel combo, like everyone else said. I can't spell it without actually saying (if only in my inner voice) "mai ... kay ... ehl", and it's my middle name. Which, granted, I don't use all that often, but imagine how little someone who doesn't even have it as a middle name runs into it.

Also, lots of names are spelled fairly close to how they sound; but Mykul doesn't look anything like Michael.

My first name also has some weird vowel combos, but it at least looks like it sounds. Stupid middle name.
posted by spaceman_spiff at 5:10 PM on May 21, 2007


Checking google, which is a bad completely meaningless but easy method, there are 265 million hits for "ea", as against 152 million for "ae".

Searching for "ae" does not search for "ae" within other words, which is what we are talking about. It searches for it as a word on its own.
posted by grouse at 5:12 PM on May 21, 2007


When two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking. (usually)
posted by euphorb at 5:14 PM on May 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


Not that I think it's the reason for mis-spelling it generally, but for the record, the Irish form of Michael is usually spelled Mícheál (pronounced Meehawl - as Mefi's own meehawl will attest).
posted by TwoWordReview at 5:16 PM on May 21, 2007


LobsterMitten wrote: "Weird" is often misspelled, for example.

I have nothing to add. I just wanted to say hello. ;)
posted by wierdo at 5:17 PM on May 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


also, since the i sound is long people that don't know how to spell it might assume that the e comes first. if you split it up like miche-al you're much closer to a phonetic spelling than micha-el. this makes even more sense if you swap the phonetic k for the ch: mike-al vs. mika-el.
posted by lgyre at 5:18 PM on May 21, 2007


Checking google, which is a bad but easy method, there are 265 million hits for "ea", as against 152 million for "ae". Searching pages in English only, it's 62 million pages for "ea", 38.5 million pages for "ae".

Yeah, that's not really a useful metric anyhow—the co-occurance of ea vs. ae within words likely bears little correlation to the occurance of either as bare strings (for Google's rather overloaded [for these purposes] sense of a bare string).

A slightly more illuminating result: ~489M hits for Michael, and ~7M for Micheal. A common misspelling, but (again admitting ghits as a questionable metric) very much a minority of cases.

Rough occurance data:

grep -c ea dictfile = 3732 matches;
grep -c ae dictfile = 267 matches;

The disparity between the two is probably greater than suggested—a glance at the output of the grep on ae shows a great many old-word proper names (Antaeus, Baez, Daedalus) and uncommon ae-suffixed terms (amoebae, herniae, scapulae).
posted by cortex at 5:20 PM on May 21, 2007


Ok, I'm shamed re the Google thing.

But cortex, the frequency of Michael misspellings doesn't get to the question of "why", which was what I was trying - misguidedly - to shed light on, with stats about the frequency of the vowel combinations in the language as a whole, not just the name Michael.
posted by LobsterMitten at 5:22 PM on May 21, 2007


I never thought misspelling/mispronouncing a name was such a grievous offense, but the comments here are pretty hostile. Ditto on the English-vowels-fucking-things-up-comment. My name is Mukund, and people rarely reach the 'k'.
posted by theiconoclast31 at 5:22 PM on May 21, 2007


Oh geez. Just saw subsequent part of your post; now turning off computer and going to sit outside for a while to refresh brain.
posted by LobsterMitten at 5:26 PM on May 21, 2007


My name is Michael and I didn't realize people often misspelled it. I'm not sure what to make of this, but I think it means that I am spectacularly clueless. In my defense, people usually call me Mike unless they are my mother.
posted by Lame_username at 5:32 PM on May 21, 2007


Do you pronounce it Myk-AL or Myk-EL? Maybe you're the problem?
posted by blue_beetle at 5:44 PM on May 21, 2007


Well, it's a hebrew word, and there's a glottal stop between the vowels in Hebrew: mi-kha-el. But when it gets rendered in a language without markers for glottal stops, those separate vocables start to look like a dipthong. And (as noted above) since Indo-European languages don't do "ae", "ea" fits the bill.
posted by felix betachat at 5:47 PM on May 21, 2007


I knew a Micheal. You can pretty much guess how he turned out.
posted by pzarquon at 5:47 PM on May 21, 2007


My name is Michael. I've experienced it. My friend Michael's mother often misspelled his name, which still makes me laugh.

Just another vote for "doesn't look anything like it sounds."
posted by invitapriore at 5:48 PM on May 21, 2007


not sure why i wrote "indo-european" there. i guess i was looking for a contrast to "semitic". but that doesn't work either. let's just say it looks weird in English, German and a lot of other languages and leave it at that. okay?
posted by felix betachat at 5:50 PM on May 21, 2007


Agree with the everybody-spells-everything-wrong theory.

The fact that people still type "definately" on this site even after it has been called out in its own post bemuses me to no end.

Geez, I swear it was the topic of a post here. Hell if I can find it now. Still, it's just flat out morally WRONG and should have its own post if it doesn't already.
posted by iguanapolitico at 5:50 PM on May 21, 2007


One of my in-laws is named Micheal, with the e first, and people spell his name wrong all the time, too.
posted by joannemerriam at 5:56 PM on May 21, 2007


Michael is my middle name, and I frequently misspelled it for a long time until I took the time to figure out what it means, which is "who resembles god," where the El part is the word for god. Keeping that in mind has helped me from ever misspelling it again. I'm not sure that it's worth giving people the whole story, but it may be.

By the way, misspelling my last name is almost a sport for most businesses, so I can definitely sympathize.
posted by feloniousmonk at 5:58 PM on May 21, 2007


First response is correct; it's a frequency thing. The same thing happens with Isreal Israel.
posted by languagehat at 6:00 PM on May 21, 2007


As a Keith, I feel your pain (I mean, what the fuck is up with "Kieth?" It ain't pronounced K-eye-th, thank you.)

On the other hand, your name could be spelled Michael, but pronounced Throatwobbler Mangrove.

How about his (and to riff off what iguanapolitico said): I know I'm likely to spell "definitely," wrong. Also "surprise" and "received." (I botched surprise in this very comment before the spell-check.) Since I *know* I'm probably going to fuck up these words, even when I type them correctly, I often over proof-read and in the absence of a spell-checker, change them to the incorrect spelling.
posted by Cyrano at 6:01 PM on May 21, 2007


I think the fact that the other vowel combo is more common covers why people do it. And then the fact that when we read we don't really parse every letter, but instead see the word as a whole, covers the "why don't people notice that they've written it wrong" question. Same reason I sometimes mispell my brother Brian's name as Brain.
posted by MsMolly at 6:18 PM on May 21, 2007


As a Keith, I feel your pain (I mean, what the fuck is up with "Kieth?" It ain't pronounced K-eye-th, thank you.)

Obviously people are following German pronunciation rules. (In German, "ie" is pronounced "ee", while "ei" would be pronounced "eye").
posted by martinrebas at 6:22 PM on May 21, 2007


Oh please, I so win the "name no one spells right," at least you don't have to spell every, single, letter out. And then again when they try the many invented variants, "jeoff", "geff", the list goes on. You have a name originating from Hebrew (-el), I have one from Old French. I win.
posted by geoff. at 6:28 PM on May 21, 2007


The Michael I work with has often complained about people misspelling his name. I know I have a few times, and despite number9dream, loiseau, and turducken, I'm a pretty decent speller.
I believe mckinney, christinetheslp, and cortex have it. Now that it think about it, the ea does look more natural than ae. Even though I know that's how it should look, the vowel combo looks "unclosed" and wrong to me, and I'm guessing my brain is trying to correct that when I misspell Micheal.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 6:50 PM on May 21, 2007


Oh, shoot.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 6:50 PM on May 21, 2007


Midway down this page is a list of the most frequent 300 English words. The EA combination shows up a whole bunch of times in these common words, the AE combination doesn't even make it on to the page outside of the most common words, much less in them. Here is another moderately illuminating page, although not really as useful.

Also random speculation, people may feel like it's one of those annoying Olde Worlde spellings--like people who refuse to spell Centreville correctly (I can't help that they named it that, it was before I was even born).
posted by anaelith at 7:11 PM on May 21, 2007


Can you really say it's a misspelling?
Parents often and deliberately use a varient spellings of common names. Nicky, Nikky, Nicci, Niky, Nikki, Niki, and so on.

Many instances might not be people being unable to spell, but simply using the wrong, correctly-spelled varient of the name.

I don't know how uncommon "Micheal" is, so I don't know how plausible an explanation is offered by variant spelling, but the question surprised me because I've always found that the way to learn to spell names is to not rely on common spellings, but to learn to spell individual's names, case by case.
posted by -harlequin- at 7:14 PM on May 21, 2007


Do you pronounce it Myk-AL or Myk-EL?

Well, that's the thing: it's really neither. In the usual pronunciation, it's got what linguists like to call a syllabic consonant; if you wrote it out in the International Phonetic Alphabet, it would be [ma618;kl809;]. This probably doesn't help people when they're trying to sound it out.

Maybe you're the problem?

Oh sure, blame the victims.
posted by Johnny Assay at 7:39 PM on May 21, 2007


Oh, for the love of... that should be [maɪkl̩]. It should look like [maIkl], with a little dot below the l. (I've put the Unicode in again, so maybe it'll work this time... but I'm not counting on it.)
posted by Johnny Assay at 7:42 PM on May 21, 2007


I think I've got you beat geoff. My last name is a common word that everyone knows, in fact it's pronunciation is the same as two common words. Every time I say my last name, I have to spell it in order for the person to understand it and even after I've spelled it, most people still don't get it right because the first consonant of the word sounds a lot like 4 other consonants.

So whenever I am at a restaurant and the host asks for a last name, I just give them my first.

In regards to the question, if it really bothers you Michael, just change your name to Mike.
posted by 517 at 7:49 PM on May 21, 2007


I also think people just don't know how to spell. Everybody spells my name 'Ester,' and I think that's why I try to pay extra attention when writing other people's names.

(I met a girl name Phoebe when we were studying in Paris and when her French professor first read it out loud, he pronounced it, "Pobe?")
posted by estherbester at 8:04 PM on May 21, 2007


517: I think what really frustrated me last night was that nobody actually spells it the way that everybody gets it wrong!

I mean, if your name is Catherine and someone spells it Katherine, well you kind of understand, because both spellings are common...

But with Michael, I have never seen it spelt Micheal, but for some reason everyone gets it wrong. At least this thread has helped me to understand why people get it wrong all the time, although I suspect it may still frustrate me a little bit!

(Oh, and for the record, I go by Mike (and even Mick) all the time, but I guess a wedding invitation kind of invites the use of your full name!).
posted by ranglin at 8:33 PM on May 21, 2007


I think everyone's covered the "people are bad spellers" and "uncommon letter combination" angles pretty well, but I'd add one more reason that you might see your name spelled incorrectly pretty frequently: Typos.

There's a lot of muscle memory around typing "ea" on the keyboard, and a (relatively weaker) ring finger having to act in an unfamiliar tandem with the left middle finger for touch-typists makes your name's spelling even trickier. Doesn't apply for calligraphy on an invite envelope, of course, but could account for the incorrect spellings that you see so frequently.
posted by anildash at 8:53 PM on May 21, 2007


I've got a rare double-a in my name -- I completely sympathize. I get "Issac" wayyyy more often than "Isaac". I even get spellings with e's and k's. About one person in twenty nails it on the first try.

I always figure that people just don't expect to see two a's next to each other, just like they don't expect to see "ae" either. It simply doesn't look like something that belongs in an English word.
posted by sellout at 9:01 PM on May 21, 2007


According to my anecdotal evidence from this page, it looks like "Micheal" is about 1/20 as popular as "Michael".
posted by blue_beetle at 9:07 PM on May 21, 2007


What's wrong with "woah?" (other than it not being a word) I mean, how else might it be spelled?
posted by misterbrandt at 9:14 PM on May 21, 2007


Okay, I just saw it on the blue. Whoa (in a suitably Keanu-ian thread...).

but can anyone explain to me why one is right and the other isn't?
posted by misterbrandt at 9:23 PM on May 21, 2007


Have you considered the possibility that they know how to spell your name properly, but they just don't like you?
posted by Caviar at 10:00 PM on May 21, 2007


Caviar: With this wedding invitation, it is a distinct possibility! It is from my mum's best friends son and his bride-to-be, so it's not a close relationship! :)
posted by ranglin at 10:23 PM on May 21, 2007


It isn't just bad spelling. Some people are deliberately named Micheal. Why?
posted by A189Nut at 11:05 PM on May 21, 2007


What's wrong with "woah?" (other than it not being a word)

But it is a (mispelling of a) word.

but can anyone explain to me why one is right and the other isn't?

For starters, "whoa" rhymes with "cocoa" but "woah" would rhyme with "Noah" or "Shenandoah."

Also, "wh-" is a sound somewhere between "w-" and "h-". It's breathier than "w-". Taking that h out and moving it to the end of the word not only makes it two syllables but also changes the "wh-" to a pure "w-" sound.

Uh, but back on topic (sorta), I know a "Micheal" and his situation is arguably worse, because when people get his name wrong they aren't just being inattentive or sloppy about it; they really think they are using the "right" spelling, and if they've seen his name on a nametag or staff list, they may well assume that what they've seen is a typo.

Also, a possible problem for both the Michaels and the Micheals of the world (and the Rachaels and Racheals, etc) is that "e" and "a" have similar shapes in most fonts/handwriting, so it's easy for the eye to confuse them.
posted by Orinda at 11:22 PM on May 21, 2007


As someone who grew up with a painfully long and awkward Polish last name, I have no sympathy for you, Micheal.

I kid, I kid
posted by davejay at 11:59 PM on May 21, 2007


People who have trouble with this, I suspect, are the same people who write "calender" and "woah" and a bunch of other too-common misspellings.
I don't think so. I'm a Michael. I work in the sub-department of Theoretical Physics at Oxford and senior academics here regularly spell my name wrong. If we're willing to admit that they're otherwise literate, articulate, intelligent people (they are) then there is something special about "Michael". It's not just a tricky word.
posted by caek at 3:30 AM on May 22, 2007


I, too, am a Michael. We all share this pain.
posted by The Michael The at 4:48 AM on May 22, 2007


It isn't just bad spelling. Some people are deliberately named Micheal. Why?

Perhaps their parents couldn't spell. I know a Kerris, and her spelling bugs the fuck out of me because the name with that sound is spelt Cerys, goddamn it. I also once knew a Kiera that I had to battle not to spell Keira because the 'ie' just looked wrong. But spelling people's names right is just a matter of common courtesy, really. I'm a Jayne, and I don't mind if you spell my name Jane without having seen it written or having spoken to me when you're writing it (I'm defensive. 'What's your name?' 'Jayne-with-a-y') but if I send you an email and you can see both in my email address and my signature (and my signoff!) that my name has a y, it's just fucking rude not to spell it right when you reply to me.
</rant>

I once had someone attempt to spell my name starting with a Y when I specified the Jayne-with-a-y. That was pretty funny.
posted by corvine at 5:18 AM on May 22, 2007


However, I don't think that "most people" misspell it — it just seems that way from confirmation bias.

If "most people" did it that way, it very quickly would become not a misspelling.
posted by dagnyscott at 6:22 AM on May 22, 2007


Why does everyone spell Michael wrong

Hazarding a guess: Because people are ignorant about the "El" origin of Hebraic-root words. If they knew that, spelling it "al" would be silly.
posted by Alt F4 at 6:46 AM on May 22, 2007


As a Keith, I feel your pain (I mean, what the fuck is up with "Kieth?" It ain't pronounced K-eye-th, thank you.)


Yes! Yes!
posted by COBRA! at 7:16 AM on May 22, 2007


If "most people" did it that way, it very quickly would become not a misspelling.

No, that's not how proper nouns work.
posted by grouse at 7:19 AM on May 22, 2007


the Irish form of Michael is usually spelled Mícheál

Sin e.
posted by meehawl at 7:32 AM on May 22, 2007


Oh, and the orthography in Mícheál in most Irish accents makes it sound quite like a classic Hebrew pronounciation of מִיכָאֵל / מיכאל, complete with a sibilant interior ch sound and a twist on the final el sound. Kind of 3.5 syllables in total.
posted by meehawl at 7:40 AM on May 22, 2007


A lot of people don't know how to spell anything correctly, much less the word Michael. It's not just your name.

For example.
posted by allkindsoftime at 9:06 AM on May 22, 2007


Sin e.

You mean "Sin é."
posted by languagehat at 2:24 PM on May 22, 2007


corvine wrote: but if I send you an email and you can see both in my email address and my signature (and my signoff!) that my name has a y, it's just fucking rude not to spell it right when you reply to me.

A lot of people reply to my emails by calling me Merriam, as though it's my first name. I think it's because some people are actually named Merriam (presumably their parents were misspelling Miriam). Or possibly it's because those people are FUCKERS!
posted by joannemerriam at 4:29 PM on May 22, 2007


Er, the people calling me Merriam, that is, not the people named Merriam.
posted by joannemerriam at 4:30 PM on May 22, 2007


Tá.
posted by meehawl at 4:34 PM on May 22, 2007


If "most people" did it that way, it very quickly would become not a misspelling.

No, that's not how proper nouns work.


Of course, if the misspelling started to creep into actual names (as it appears to have to a limited degree here), then neither would be 'wrong' in the literal sense, just a wrong choice of the several different spellings (of course, in the case of Michael, the dominance of one spelling causes problems, see here and here for example)
posted by ranglin at 5:56 PM on May 22, 2007


Don't know what it means, but it's a fun stat - In the U.S. in the 1950s, Michael was the most common name for a boy. Micheal ranked as the 90th most common. Somewhere in the late 1990s, we apparently figured out how to spell the name and Micheal dropped to 419th, while Michael is still one of the most popular names. Info from the Baby Name Wizard NameVoyager, a really fun site based on U.S. census data.

And BTW, I'm Jamie NOT Jaime. Just for the record, and I know Jaime is a name too, but it's not mine, 'kay? The pronounciation is completely different. Thanks.
posted by Jaie at 2:20 PM on May 23, 2007


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