Liza with a zee?

Vic Skeptics received this via email a few months ago.

Hello, I’m interested in your organisation but wonder why you choose to use the U.S spelling of sceptic? Surely, this is not the norm in Australia and for pedants such as myself is quite off-putting.
John

The following is based on the considered replies that the question prompted.

John’s question contains the assumption that the words “skeptic” and “sceptic” are interchangeable, and the adoption of one over the other is merely a matter of geography. I prefer to argue that the English language has once again thrown up a pair of synonyms which have taken on subtle but useful nuances.

The name “Australian Skeptics” and the title of our national magazine The Skeptic were adopted in 1980 and may well have been a direct imitation of the existing Skeptic magazine published in the US  by the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP). However, the “k” spelling was also adopted by UK Skeptics.

To his great credit, John followed up with some research on his own behalf and discovered “that the earliest spelling in England was in fact skeptick;  it is not until the middle of the seventeenth century that the spelling sceptick is found; by the nineteenth it had become firmly sceptic. Dr Johnson’s dictionary (1755) used the sk spelling …… It looks rather as though the USA continued the original spelling, as they did with a number of words.”

The word derives from the Greek Skepticos – inquiring.  One who habitually questions matters generally accepted. A certain group of ancient Greek philosophers were called the Skeptikoi. As a put-down, their contemporaries said of them: “They opine everything and assert nothing”

So I contend that being a Skeptic (capital s small k) is a statement of one’s philosophy.  A Skeptic generally avoids reaching conclusions until the best evidence has been considered. Being sceptical  (small s, small c) means tending to disbelieve some specific proposition or other. Even the most gullible person can be sceptical about something; that Feng Shui really put that pot plant in the best spot, for example, or that their favourite phone psychic got the reading right last time.

One may, for argument’s sake be sceptical about the Moon Landings. Any Skeptic I’ve ever spoken to is satisfied that our species has visited the Moon’s surface several times – not as an article of faith, but because the evidence overwhelmingly supports that view. More topical is the problematic  phrase “Climate Change Sceptic“.  Most (but not all) of my Skeptic friends, having examined the available evidence, incline towards anthropogenic global warming.

Skeptic or sceptical? Both. As a pedant, I find the difference useful, because it allows me to use the correct word for the correct purpose.

Ken Greatorex

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