To catch a sneeze

In honor of allergy season, here’s a riddle: What word’s first syllable is pronounced differently than the way it is spelled, is frequently misspelled to match the way it’s pronounced, and is useful if you have to sneeze?

Answer: “Handkerchief.” Whose first syllable is rarely pronounced “hand.”

American accents can make mincemeat out of many words, and this is one example. In British-accented English, the first syllable of “handkerchief” is pronounced with a softer “a” sound, more like “eh,” so it’s a bit easier to put the “d” of “hand” and “kerchief” together. In American, we make the “a” in “handkerchief” more like the “a” in “anchor,” so the “d” is actually harder to form. So we end up pronouncing “hand kerchief” more like “hanker chief” or “hanger chief.” (The “ief” in “chief” can be pronounced to rhyme with “sheaf” or with “if,” depending on region, but the plural is always handkerchiefs, not handkerchieves.)

Because we tend to spell the way we pronounce things, many people think that the small square of cloth one uses to wipe one’s nose is spelled “hankerchief.” That spelling appears more than 500 times in Nexis, outside of deliberate misspellings in proper names and such. You can also find “hankerchief” on many sites where sellers post their own items, including Amazon, Etsy, and eBay.

Where you won’t find it is in dictionaries. Even the loosest do not list it, even as a variant or disputed spelling. Search engines know the (mis)spelling is common enough that looking for “hankerchief” will turn up lots of seemingly legitimate references. When they’re clicked, though, they invariably transform into “handkerchief.” Searching for “hangerchief,” using a similar phonetic spelling, turns up very little.

The Oxford English Dictionary traces “handkerchief” to 1530, and “kerchief” to 1400, preceded by “head-kerchief” and “neck-kerchief” in the late 1300s, with many variant spellings. Since a “kerchief” was known mostly as a cloth to cover a head, usually that of a woman, the “head” was mostly dropped after the mid-19th century, a Google ngram shows, though it is still used occasionally today.

Other parts demanded their own “kerchiefs” as well, with “night-kerchief” around 1450 and the somewhat redundant “pocket handkerchief” in 1645, the OED says.

In the mid-19th century, the hypercorrective book Five Hundred Mistakes of Daily Occurrence in Speaking, Pronouncing, and Writing the English Language, Corrected warned against adding too much to the “kerchief.” (Thanks for Jan Freeman for alerting us to the book’s existence.) “Mistake” No. 247 reads:

“He wears a blue-spotted neck-handkerchief:” say, neckerchief, or, still better, neck-cloth, or cravat. The original word is kerchief, and not handkerchief, which is a kerchief for the hand.

Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary says “neckcloth” is archaic for “necktie.” Thank goodness, we can just say “tie” now. “

“Handkerchief,” of course, has its own diminutive, “hanky” or “hankie,” which may also help explain the misspelling. So when you “hanker” for something to sneeze into during allergy season, don’t forget you’ll also be using your “hand.”


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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.