Why ‘island’ and ‘aisle’ ought to be spelt ‘iland’ and ‘aile’.



The noun island is derived from the Old-English noun íegland, also ígland, a pleonastic compound of íeg, íg, meaning isle, and of land.

The literal meaning of íeg was watered place. This word is related to Old English éa, water, river, and a compound frequent in Old English was éaland, literally water-land, river-land.

Old English éa is related to Danish ø, Swedish ö and Norwegian øy, which all mean island, and to German Aue, meadow watered by a brook. These Germanic words are cognate with Latin aqua, water.

Composed of íeg and the diminutive suffix -eð, the noun ait, also eyot, denotes an islet in a river. It is attested in place names, and very commonly used of islets in the Thames. For example:
Medley in Oxfordshire was originally Middileit;
Bos Ait in Surrey was Boreseyt;
Dog Ait in Middlesex was Dockeyte.

The ordinary Middle-English and early-Modern-English form of island was iland, also yland. In the 15th century, the first part of the word began to be associated with the synonymous but unrelated noun ile, yle, of French origin and meaning island, and the word was sometimes analytically written ile-land. When ile came to be spelt isle, iland erroneously followed it as isle-land, island. The latter spelling became established as the current form before 1700. The spelling island is therefore an instance of “learned folk etymology”.

The s in isle is due to the influence of the Middle-French noun isle, a Latinised spelling which prevailed from the Renaissance onwards, as the word is from Latin insula, meaning isle, island. In île, the Modern-French word, the circumflex accent, ^, is a trace of the etymological s—cf. also French fenêtre, meaning window.

According to Isidore of Seville (Isidorus Hispalensis – circa 560-636), Spanish archbishop and doctor of the Church, in his encyclopaedic work Etymologiarum sive Originum Isidori Hispalensis (edited by W. M. Lindsay – Oxford University Press, 1911), the Latin noun insula is derived from in salo, meaning that which is in the sea, from:
in, meaning in;
– and the ablative of salum, denoting the open sea, the high sea, as opposed to the sea near the coast or in a port.

The Latin salum is based on Greek σάλος (= sálos), denoting the tossing or rolling swell of the sea and the tossing on the sea of ships or of persons in them.

The Latin insula also denoted a block of tenement houses, also a single tenement house, for poor people, as opposed to domus, which denoted the mansion of a rich family.

The English verb insulate, from insula, originally meant to make into an island. It is first attested in The Itinerary of John Leland, by the English poet and antiquary John Leland (circa 1503-1552):

(2nd edition – Oxford, 1745)
The Ryver of Avon so windeth aboute Oundale Toune that it almost insulatithe it, savyng a litle by West North West.




The proper meaning of the noun aisle, which dates back to the late 14th century, is a lateral division of a church, usually separated from the nave by rows of pillars. It ought not to have an s as it is from Anglo-Norman forms such as ele and eile, meaning wing of a church, bird’s wing, from classical Latin ala, meaning wing (in post-classical Latin, ala also denoted a part of a church).

The current spelling is partly due to French aile, wing of a building, aisle of a church, but also to folk-etymological association with isle. This seems curious, but is certified by the fact that in the 15th and 16th centuries, the post-classical Latin insula was the usual rendering of aisle. There is even an isolated occurrence of island in the sense of aisle of a church in the register of the parish of Hart, in County Durham, England:

Mr. John Lawson was buryed in the portch of the south yland, close by the grave of Mr. Raphe Lawson, his brother, Oct. 16, 1590.

The association with isle was perhaps based on apprehension of an aisle as a detached or distinct portion of a church.

The spelling aisle was hesitatingly admitted by the English lexicographer Samuel Johnson (1709-84) in A Dictionary of the English Language (London, 1755)—the French noun allée translates as a path, a drive:

Aisle. Thus the word is written by Addison, but perhaps improperly; since it seems deducible only from either aile, a wing, or allée, a path; and is therefore to be written aile.

The sense passage in a church between the rows of seats of aisle seems to be influenced by the corresponding meaning of alley, with which there is partial semantic overlap. This sense is first recorded in The third part of Gangræna. Or, A new and higher discovery of the errors, heresies, blasphemies, and insolent proceedings of the sectaries of these times (London, 1646), by the English Puritan priest Thomas Edwards (1599-1647):

This last Summer the Church of Duckingfield (of which Master Eaton and Master Taylor are Pastor and Teacher) being met in their Chappell to the performing of their worship and service, as Master Eaton was preaching, there was heard the perfect sound as of a man beating a martch on a drum, and it was heard as coming into the Chappell, and then as going up all along the Ile through the people, and so about the Chappell, but nothing seen, which Master Eaton preaching and the people that sate in the severall parts of the Chappell heard, insomuch that it terrified Master Eaton and the people, caused him to give over preaching, and fall to praying, but the martch still beating, they broke up their exercise for that time, and were glad to be gone.


cf. also:
linguistic notes on the ‘one’ in ‘alone’ and ‘only’
origin of ‘avoirdupois’: goods sold by weight
‘proud as a louse’ and other linguistic notes on ‘Punchinello’
a linguistic and historical study of ‘foie gras’

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